There is a time for comfort and a time for challenge. A balanced life needs times of learning, growth, and change countered by times of soothing, familiarity, and ease. Imagine all the aspects of your life that provide you with comfort; these fit inside the innermost circle in the diagram here: the comfort zone. The comfort zone looks different for each individual but examples include chatting with good friends, hanging out in your pajamas watching a movie from the couch, eating your favorite food. The comfort zone includes the low stress activities that you have done a million times because you enjoy them and feel calmed by them.
Life is easy in the comfort zone, unless you get stuck there. Life in the comfort zone can start to feel cramped and limiting, a low level of agitation may develop, the activities that have been soothing may start to lose their appeal. This happens if it has been a while since you’ve had a growth experience by trying something new, learning a new skill, or examining your life for ways to change or improve the way you live. When this happens you are rubbing up against the border between the comfort zone and the growth zone and are experiencing useful anxiety. At this point the only way to relieve the anxiety is to move into the growth zone.
The growth zone is characterized by uncertainty and discoveries, vulnerability and renewed confidence, fear and delight. It is a time of learning which involves small failures on the way to big accomplishments; as the saying goes you can’t learn to ride a bike without falling off first. Eventually with time, patience, consistent effort, the new experiences of the growth zone become familiar and mastered, and thus the comfort zone grows to include these experiences or activities. Unfortunately it is fear of failure that can keep people stuck in a comfort zone that has become too small. Another reason people avoid entering the growth zone is to avoid getting too close to the panic zone.
In the panic zone there is the feeling that one is in danger and the fight/flight/freeze response comes into effect to deal with the threat; that is, a person feels that he or she must escape the threat of danger by responding to it aggressively, running from it, or hiding from it. Survival becomes the priority and growth or learning is no longer possible. The threat in the panic zone may be real but it is more often a percieved threat that is not actually dangerous. Imagine someone with the common fear of public speaking, who steps out to the podium and begins to feel overwhelmed by fear and has an urge to run off the stage. This person has entered the panic zone, staying there and acting from the panic zone will have less than favorable results, but thankfully it is not the only option. This person can return to the growth zone. He can take a deep breath, remind himself he is not in danger, and go on with his speech. He will still be uncomfortable and nervous and his speech may not be the best ever delivered, however when it is all over he will have accomplished something new and grown his comfort zone even if its just a little bit.
So how do you make sure you stay in the growth zone and out of the panic zone? There are many ways to ensure that new growth experiences feel safe and productive. One is to make sure you have support and ask for help; this could mean getting encouragment from people who care about you or it could mean requesting the input of a teacher or mentor. Another way is to take breaks from the growth zone by going into the comfort zone; small exposures to the new experiences balanced with familiar and comforting activities will keep you from becoming overwhelmed. And last, maintaining awareness of your physical condition and mindset will let you know when you are getting close to the panic zone. Like the example of the man giving the speech, he used mindfulness skills to reassure himself “I am not in danger” and took deep breaths to ground himself so that he could return to the growth zone and go on with his speech.
A satifying and fulfilling life has plenty of time spent in the growth zone, which allows for an ever expanding comfort zone.