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Z is for Zones - Comfort, Stretch and Stress

“Step out of your comfort zone.” is a familiar phrase, but what does it mean and is it always a good idea?

The term ‘comfort zone’ was originally coined by Alasdair White, a Business Management Theorist, in 2009.

It is said that everyone has a comfort zone. We are all individuals so our comfort zone is different for each one of us. It is not static, it changes over time as our thoughts, actions, experiences, skill-sets and goals evolve.

The comfort zone is one of three zones identified in learning processes by

Ryan and Markova ( The comfort, Stretch, Panic Model, Ryan, A. and Markova, D., 2006) The three different zones are: the comfort zone, the stretch zone and the stress (or panic) zone.

What is the comfort zone?

The comfort zone is usually described as a psychological state in which a person feels comfortable, safe, at ease and experiences low levels of anxiety because they're not being challenged. Inside this comfort zone, people don't typically engage in new experiences or take on anything difficult so there are less opportunities to learn or experience growth, people only participate in activities that they are familiar with so that they can feel ‘in control’ of their environment.

Sometimes the comfort zone is described as a place of stagnancy, but perhaps a term with less negative connotations to describe its nature would be ‘a place of consistency and safety’.

Even if we plan to stay in our comfort zone, life has a funny way of happening differently to how we imagine so we are sometimes forced to unexpectedly face up to things or deal with situations that we wouldn’t have chosen to. Over time our comfort zone can expand naturally because of this as we accommodate and assimilate the vicissitudes of life. However, if we always try to keep the status quo and to just have the same or similar experiences, our comfort zone can become stagnant because we aren’t training or preparing ourselves for new experiences so, just like our muscles if we stop using them, it can begin to atrophy.

What is the stress zone?

The stress or panic zone, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. A challenge is perceived as so far away from the zone where we feel comfortable, that it becomes overwhelming. We experience stress, fear and challenge in a way that learning is impossible because it triggers our fight or flight reaction and all our energy is spent on managing and controlling this fear and panic. If we stay too long in this stress zone it stops us wanting to explore our boundaries preferring instead to stay within our comfort zone.

What is the stretch zone?

“We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are.” Max DePree

The stretch zone is the zone in between the two previous zones. It is where maximum growth occurs. In the stretch zone things can feel somehow awkward and unfamiliar but are cope- able with i.e. they do not bring about debilitating behaviour, instead as boundaries are explored learning can occur and possibilities are enhanced, safe in the knowledge that if you feel that you cannot cope with a situation as it unfolds, you can always retreat to the comfort zone. This is not a failure, rather it is giving you time to reflect, regroup and decide whether you want to try again armed with new knowledge and recent experience. Operating in and learning in this zone can expand our comfort zone as we become familiar with new situations, activities.

Some pros and cons of staying in your comfort zone

Change is easier when it starts from within your comfort zone because that’s where you feel secure about who you are and what you want to do.” Debbie Mandel.

Keeping in your comfort zone allows one to draw on past, familiar experiences and can inspire confidence and limit anxiety whereas new experiences can cause concern, fear and discomfort.

Stepping out of our comfort zone, trying to be someone we are not, leads to stress, zaps our energy and creativity and creates a dissonance inside of us.

“Many of us are busy escaping from the deficits of our personality by trying to be something we’re not” Debbie Mandel.

Staying in your comfort zone can limit your experiences and opportunities for growth. Once we make the choice to step out of our comfort zone, we make space for the opportunity to learn new skills and gain new knowledge over time

“A dream is your creative vision for your life in the future. You must break out of your current comfort zone and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown.” Denis Waitley

Refusing to entertain new opportunities or being unwilling to experience discomfort, to take risks and face new challenges could be interpreted as saying you’re okay with settling for a life that is ‘good enough which means that you are not embracing your full potential

There are a lot of quotes out there along the theme of ‘life begins the other side of our comfort zone’ and comfort zones are described in a negative light, but I think that we need our comfort zone as a point to touch base with ourselves and feel at home.

From the safety of our comfort zones we can take time to be aware of and create our boundaries, focus more on becoming aware of the strengths and weaknesses that make up our character, living with integrity, learning to lean into our intuition, embrace life, daring to be ourselves we can embrace change, develop a growth mindset, a zest for life and flourish rather than hiding behind complacency or fear.

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