The Neuroscience Behind Our Tendencies to Stay in Comfort Zones and 3 Steps To Overcome Them
Ever heard of growing pains? Discomfort and growth go hand in hand.
“You need to recognize that the risk of moving toward your dreams is much lower than the slow, everyday punishment you inflict on yourself by suppressing your dream.” — Mel Robbins
Your grand vision requires you to take steps in many new directions. You may even need to blaze new trails. This takes effort. It feels uncomfortable. You may need to put yourself or your work out there before you feel ready. You may need to apply your skills in unexpected and challenging situations. Your brain does not like to expend energy when it doesn’t have to. Its survival mechanism sees any new action as potential sources of risk. Why strive for more when you have made it this far and are currently alive? To save its precious energy and protect you from danger, the brain immediately draws your attention to all the things that could go wrong. The excitement of potential success is overshadowed by your brain’s spotlight on the risk of failure. This is the Negativity Bias at work. Your heart constricts, your breathing quickens, you feel the pit in your stomach. Although more subtle than outright fear, discomfort can be just as powerful in halting our personal growth. When we get so used to feeling discomfort and not acting on our heart’s intent, we create a habit of hesitation. That habit has a biological underpinning — it creates a baseline state from which you then tend to act — or not act. COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT Your most frequently inhabited emotional states and attitudes can be compared to your brain’s home. The brain doesn’t care whether the feelings that you find most familiar are positive or negative. It becomes familiar with them and sets them as a baseline or a “default program.” These feelings and tendencies are your comfort zones. Your brain loves them because they help it conserve energy. You tell your brain what is important by where you consistently direct your mental energy. It then creates shortcuts to get there faster next time. If you place your attention on negative and limiting beliefs often, the brain will assist in bringing them to the forefront faster next time. After all, if they weren’t important, why would you spend your mental focus on them? If you constantly live in an undercurrent of stress, disappointment, frustration, or anger, you become comfortable even with those currents of disharmony. Your brains feels most “at home” in these emotional states. Our society’s baseline has become one where living in disharmony is seen as a natural part of being human. Instead of placing our attention on what is going well in our lives, we have trained ourselves to focus on what is wrong. We thus reinforce the brain’s negativity bias and then wonder why we find it hard to change and to get out of our comfort zones. UPDATING YOUR DEFAULT SETTING When your default program is disrupted, you feel discomfort. If your default program is a feeling of self-doubt and hesitation, then doing anything that exudes confidence or ambition may not feel “natural.” According to the HeartMath Institute, the brain requires “either an internal adjustment (self-regulation) or an outward behavioral action to reestablish a match and feeling of comfort.” This means that to be comfortable again, you must either 1) change what you are doing or 2) change how you are thinking about/perceiving a situation. The familiar path is always the easiest one to take — thus we often feel “stuck” in our unhealthy habits and limiting ways of thinking. To illustrate this, imagine that someone who is right-handed breaks his right arm. The whole arm is in a cast and for a while, he is unable to perform many of the tasks he was used to doing before. The unfamiliar experience of brushing his teeth with his left arm feels uncomfortable at first. Since he can’t take the familiar action (brush his teeth with the right hand) in order to get back to a feeling of what’s comfortable, he has no choice but to feel the discomfort, become ok with it and proceed with brushing with the left hand. Eventually, the brain will adapt to this and the feeling of discomfort will dissipate. Because we often have the choice to remain in our comfort zones, our brains are never forced to adapt to our new ways of thinking or taking action. How does the brain adapt to the experiences, thoughts, and emotions that we feel most frequently? The neural pathways corresponding to these experiences strengthen. New memories get linked to the strongest pathways. Someone that is used to always being stressed may feel a sense of anxiety even when strolling the beach at sunset while on vacation. The neural pathways of stress can feel stronger than the peaceful setting we find ourselves in. When we consistently hesitate to take action towards our dreams, we cultivate the habit of hesitation. Our brain gets used to taking that shortcut. Next time we are faced with a decision to get out of our comfort zones or do what we’ve always done, the brain will make it easy to hesitate and take the most familiar path — even if it’s at the cost of growing and achieving our goal. 3 STEPS TO FOLLOWING YOUR DISCOMFORT Overcome your brain’s inclination to stay in a comfort zone by using these 3 steps to take action on a consistent basis:
1. Become Aware of the Physical Sensation of Discomfort Whatever new habit or state of being you are working on bringing into your life, learn to recognize the sensation of discomfort. What physical sensations are most often associated with it? Notice the difference between feelings of discomfort that arise as a result of true physical danger and those that are mainly in your mind. When you want to do five more pushups, your brain doesn’t feel the need to put in the extra effort because you are already alive and physically safe. Your rational mind knows that you can keep going — or at least try.
Discomfort can be your friend — it is letting you know that you have stepped out of your comfort zone. Stepping past that threshold means you are growing!
2. Be Present With Your Discomfort & Bring In Logic When you feel the sensation of discomfort, be with it for a moment before taking action. This is the point where it becomes easy to fall back on old patterns.
Most of us can’t stand the feeling so we move right back into what feels comfortable. If we can recognize discomfort as a friend, we create a space from which we can take new actions. When we step back and remind ourselves why we want to take a new action or create a new thought, we take our power back. We move from unconsciously acting from our past memories to acting in alignment with what we truly want on a conscious level.
In that space between feeling the discomfort and being aware that you are feeling it, you can bring in the rational side of you. Ask yourself whether what you are really considering doing poses an actual threat to your existence. More than likely, you will find that your brain has just been focusing on the risk of the downside to protect you. The risks on the upside are just as real if you have a good plan in place. Balance out your thinking by bringing to mind the best-case scenario instead of just focusing on the worst-case.
3. Turn Discomfort Into Excitement & Do It Anyway With the best-case scenario in mind, turn the feeling of discomfort into excitement. The chemicals rushing through your body in the form of stress are meant to get you to take action. That is why it feels even more uncomfortable when you don’t. Taking action will turn those chemicals into energy needed to get that task done. When the task is done you will be rewarded with dopamine which will motivate you to keep taking even more steps towards your goal or vision.
The more often you take action, the more you break the habit of hesitation and create a new emotional baseline from which you become a more consistent “action-taker.” Stepping past the threshold of comfort zones may not always offer an immediate reward, but in the long-term, that is where life’s most precious treasures often lie.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” — Neale Donald Walsch