How stretching a comfort zone builds resilience

Observing new stress as good stress

Jack Welch once said, “Change before you have to.” The mere idea of “change” can stir up feelings of stress because it requires some kind of transformation and alteration of your behavior. In other words, you need to get out of your comfort zone. That gets into the deep-seated work of having to break habits, shift beliefs, replace assumptions, and understand the obstacles and resistance you will encounter. I mean, who wants to go there?

I don’t think even Jack Welch could have imagined the world in 2017, when change is incessant. Most of us recognize that change is mandatory: it’s the new normal. These days our focus has shifted to becoming “resilient” and “agile.” Resilience and agility have become the go-to skills to help us change, to stretch out of what has become a “comfort zone.” Getting out of comfort zones must become our crucial new habit.

In my mind, getting out of your comfort zone is really just a metaphor for stretching. It doesn’t have to be stressful, per se. Stretching out of your comfort zone in this way, however, does require stress. That’s what makes it challenging. We habitually interpret stress with feelings of pressure, worry and fear. We’re practically programmed to avoid or combat stress, yet stress itself is not inherently bad or negative. It’s just our perception that makes it so. Most of us forget that stress can be good, and frankly, the very thing we need to grow or adapt to a new situation.

My suggestion: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Invite stress into your life. The more often you introduce small stretches to your own particular comfort zones, the more resilient you will become. Greater resilience can help you see life’s challenges in ways that are less paralyzing. The key is to make stretching a new habit so you can start perceiving stress in a more positive light. How can you do this? Consider these three ideas.

One: Stretching out of your comfort zone requires stress.

Let’s start with a physical example to give you an idea of what I mean. In Kundalini yoga, we voluntarily practice poses that provide small stresses to our body, like holding our arms up at a 60 degree angle for three minutes while practicing a breath of fire. Holding your arms up isn’t going to kill you, but the very thought of doing it for three minutes can cause a mental strain. This is an example of a good stress that can help you build resilience and agility.

When you first practice it, your brain will send you signals of pain and discomfort. Your arms aren’t going to love you either. But in reality, there’s typically no danger to doing this. Instead, you’re challenged to work from the inside, creating poses and holding them to build physical strength as well as the ability to mentally accept what was once perceived as a stress.

There are also mental stretches. Consider when you have a goal in mind, e.g., “I want an exercise routine that helps me become strong and healthy.” Now think about what goes through your head when you’re not making progress on that goal. (“I don’t have time because I have a full time job and then I have to come home and take care of my kids.”) There are dozens of assumptions that accompany lack of progress on a goal like this. You may tell yourself you’re not a morning person, so you can’t get up an hour earlier to work out; you may believe you need time at the end of the day to watch TV to relax; you may think as a good parent you need to make dinner every night for your kids. In this instance, your challenge is actually not a physical one; it’s a mental one. To move forward, make a change, or stretch your status quo, you need to question if you are confronting real obstacles or obstacles in your mind.

In these situations, try expanding your comfort zone through a “positive stretch.” A positive stretch uses something you’re naturally good at and makes you feel strong. Perhaps you are inherently organized. You could, in the above example, make a number of dinners in advance and freeze them, so cooking doesn’t have to present a time constraint. If you have an energizing strength of efficiency, you could change the way you watch TV by taping all the shows you want to watch, schedule some appointment viewing for yourself, and gain time by avoiding channel surfing.

I am over-simplifying here to make the point that your mind and body are pretty tenacious in their habits — in their comfort zones. They keep you exactly where you are, often to your detriment, rehashing repeated patterns, reinforcing old decisions, inventing rationalizations and finding ways to confirm your biases. It’s a vicious (and comfortable) cycle. But that doesn’t mean that change isn’t possible or that comfort zones have to get the best of you.

Two: Consciously-invited stress, whether it’s mental or physical, counters your unconscious, zoned-out and natural inclination of routine.

Our mind and body adapt so quickly to routines and inclinations, we don’t even notice how easily we fall into habits. We don’t even recognize them as “habits.” We think we’re making decisions every day when actually, we’re not.

More often, you have a bias, an automatic go-to process that you use when making decisions. It might be based on emotions. It might be based on loss aversion. Perhaps you’re inclined to use an analytical process. None of these are bad, per se. My point is that your decision-making is pretty much on a default setting. And because of that, you often think the same way and use the same process for different circumstances: mentally, you are riding in your comfort zone.

My reaction to the first Kundalini yoga class I took 16 years ago is a perfect example of how profoundly unaware I was of my own deeply embedded beliefs that kept me locked in my own comfort zone. That first class made me physically uncomfortable and left me mentally confused, annoyed and frustrated. I walked away believing, “These people are not like me and I am so not like them. Chanting a mantra is not going to make me feel better. And holding your arms up while panting like a dog is not normal yoga. I cannot wait to laugh with my friends about this.”

In a nutshell, my mind hit the proverbial wall. I was smacked in the face with my comfort zone, though at the time, I didn’t have a clue this was happening. I attributed it to something else. My mental bias was based on my past experience of what yoga looked like; my default was identifying myself as someone who wouldn’t do ridiculous things like chant; and I sought confirmation bias from many friends to reinforce these beliefs. It was a classic comfort zone rejection of something new, unfamiliar and challenging. It happened in the blink of an eye, and just as unconsciously. (As an aside, I have been a certified Kundalini instructor for the past 4 years. How’s that for confronting your comfort zone?!)

Three: The more often you introduce small stretches (and stresses) into your life, the more resilient you will become.

More resilience can help you see life’s challenges in a way that isn’t paralyzing, allowing you to feel more in control. This gives you more energy and empowerment to commit to goals and view changes in a more positive light. You will be “in flow” with what happens so that you can act instead of react. They say resilience is one of the keys to happiness. If that’s true, stretch is the way to cultivate it.

So how do you successfully stretch out of your comfort zone, introducing stress without feeling stressed? I believe the key to successful stretching is to start small to get some wins. When we feel overwhelmed or stressed, we often fall back on intellectual explanations of what’s happening. We get stuck in our minds … and we get supported and confirmed by others.

It’s so easy to dip into your stories, get caught up in your emotions and find other people who will agree with you. Ironically, it is often these times when you need to inject some “good” stress into your life to break the cycle. You don’t have to go to the extreme … you just need to add a little at a time, commit to it and persevere. Don’t try to do too much at once. Slow and steady wins the race.

Challenging our comfort zones consciously awakens mental assumptions (“Why do I need to hold my arms up in the air and pant like a dog?”), poking and provoking your mind and body to help guide you through your own set of fears and habits. By letting the slight discomfort go, by enduring and sticking with it, you wind up conquering it. And in doing so, this once mental fear and anxiety melts away. You realize even a small dose of resoluteness can yield a win, a change.

There are literally thousands of ways to cultivate your stretch zone. The trick is to introduce new things into your routines mindfully and often so that you can dip in and out of your comfort zone, increasing your forward-looking and productive relationship with stress. Here are two of my favorite articles that offer some suggestions:

Finally, here are two things I’m currently doing to get out of my comfort zones:

To stretch my comfort zone in my body:

When I’m sitting, I roll up a hand towel and place it between the sofa and the base of my spine. It’s meant to help signal me to sit up instead of slouching. It’s also a gentle reminder for me to bring my shoulders back which I find challenging since my habit is to fall forward most of the day.

To stretch my comfort zone in my career:

First I like to think about activities that I enjoy (e.g., creating compelling and powerful presentations for clients) and a few of my energizing strengths (the things that make me feel invigorated or motivated) that I use while doing them. Next, I consider these energizing strengths (e.g., creativity, relationship and networking) and pick a stretch strategy: 1. Can I teach others in an area around me this activity? (e.g., help sales teams tackle their competition by delivering more motivating and compelling pitches?) 2. Can I gain new knowledge and develop new skills around this to “up my game”? (e.g., is there a particular book or course I can take that can provide new insights and perceptions around this?) 3. Can I create a project that would utilize this strength while challenging my usual limits? (e.g., is there an industry or new group of people I can approach about these skills?)

Anything that requires you to get out of your comfort zone requires that you introduce a little stress into your everyday routine. If you can view this more positively — as a means to get to an end you genuinely desire — this “stress” doesn’t have to be “stressful.”

Instead of running from stress, invite it into your life, like a good friend. Welcome it like the delicious ingredient that will make your life better, helping you overcome hurdles, ignite creativity, and build resilience so you can become the version of yourself you want to be.

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