The neuropsychology of comfort zones

Photo: Charlotte, Vermont, 2016

Psychologically, the window of tolerance is the zone where we feel safe, at ease, socially engaged, and comfortable. This is the ideal place to be, but if you struggle with faulty neuroception, your window of tolerance may be narrow. We often hear the word ‘triggered,’ which has become so over-used that the neuroscience behind it is often lost or misinterpreted.

NEUROCEPTION refers to our bodies constantly scanning the environment for cues of safety or danger. It is how neural circuits distinguish whether situations, activities, or people are safe, risky, dangerous, or life-threatening.

The two extreme zones of neuroception responses are hyperarousal and hypoarousal. The window of tolerance is the zone where you feel safest and most comfortable. The window of tolerance or comfort zone becomes restricted for people who suffer from disorders that include trauma, anxiety, mood problems, and dysregulation.

HYPERAROUSAL
In hyperarousal, a person may feel feel super activated and overwhelmed.
You may be easily distracted or have difficulty with concentration, racing or intrusive thoughts, and intense rumination or obsessive thoughts. You may feel easily overwhelmed, distressed, anxious, panicked, or nervous. You might also feel anger, irritation, or rage, and a sense of uneasiness, discomfort, or lack of safety. In your body, you may notice that you feel restless or fidgety, wound up or tense, easily startled or jumpy, and have a hard time relaxing or sleeping. You may experience an urge to fight or flee, as these are survival responses associated with hyperarousal.

Other actions associated with hyperarousal are calling for help, freezing up, and trying to appease/please/meet the expectations of others.

If you’re hyperaroused on a regular basis, you may frequently feel impulsive, restless, impatient, easily frustrated, angry, anxious, physically distressed (headache, stomach ache, body aches and pains), or tense.

HYPOAROUSAL
In hypoarousal, a person may feel distant and disconnected. You may feel hopeless, discouraged, disinterested, bored, disconnected, unmotivated, indifferent, numb, empty, or emotionally flat. In your body, you may notice that you feel sluggish, lethargic, weak, heavy, or have frequent drowsiness. You may experience the urge to be motionless, still, and passive. It can be hard to get yourself moving or involved in activities around you. In a state of hypoarousal, we ‘shut down’ and become immobilized and still. If you’re hypoaroused on a regular basis, you may feel chronically flat, depressed, empty, or lethargic.

How to (Safely) Expand Your Comfort Zone

  • Do everyday things differently.
    In everyday life, there are ample opportunities to challenge yourself. Turn off your smartphone and television; see if you can sit in silence. Try new food or cuisines. Go for a walk. Take the scenic route.
  • Expand your professional skills.
    Growing your skillset can foster creativity and refresh self-confidence. Skills like public speaking, negotiation, DEI,  and leadership can represent a new challenge for many people.
  • Take exercise/workouts to the next level.
    If you’ve always been a cardio versus strength work person, add components. Integrate mind-body practices such as yoga.
  • Be creative
    Creativity, anything from writing a poem, drawing to building a small business, usually involves an element of risk. Creative endeavors are about stepping into the unknown, with failing and subsequent learning.
  • Let go
    A need for perfection or fear of being judged or mocked can hold people back from stepping out of the comfort zone. dance, try a different look and take a selfie, sing, participate in a podcast, make that new dish that you never tried cooking before.
  • Challenge your knowledge base
    While exploring alternative perspectives can be uncomfortable, it enables growth and insight by challenging entrenched beliefs. It also helps create new neural pathways. This might take several forms, such as reading varied book genres, diversifying who you talk to, and visiting new places. It’s easy to get stuck in our ways, but this can lead to complacency and repetition, hallmarks of being in the comfort zone.
  • Practice transparency
    When employed sensitively, honesty can be a tremendous catalyst for personal growth. Start by being straight with yourself writing in a private journal or telling someone close how you feel. Practicing honesty forces people out of their comfort zone. Genuineness in communication builds deeper bonds with others. This can be difficult for people who are used to “saying the right thing“.

Two caveats: I have written elsewhere about maintaining personal safety.  With certain people or situations, it is not possible to speak your mind or offer your opinion or feelings without punitive consequences. This is not the time/place to practice transparency.  Secondly, honesty must be balanced with compassion. Brutal honesty is, well, brutal.

Learn about neuroplasticity
Neural plasticity is the idea, supported by research findings, that the brain is a highly active and malleable learning machine. Neuroscience used to believe that brain development stops in adolescence or young adulthood. That meant that if somebody suffered an injury such as a stroke, brain trauma, or illness, the damage was permanent. However, over the last decade, research on brain development, injury, and recovery have suggested the opposite. The more the brain is exercised, the stronger it becomes.

Science is not useful unless it has pragmatic applications. Here are some recent research results:

  • Stroke survivors who engage in repetitive, increasingly challenging physical therapy exercises can regain motor function.
  • London cab drivers had greater gray matter volume in the hippocampus (area of the brain related to consolidated memory and learning), compared to everyday drivers who followed the same routes during their daily routine.
  • Thought alone is associated with neuroplastic gains. Some piano performers prepare for concerts primarily through visualization instead of physical practice. Master chefs and sommeliers can think through the preparation of a complex meal or describing a rare vintage. MRI studies show the same motor mapping as if they had actually engaged in the activity.
  • Learning another language increases density and strength in both white and gray brain matter.
  • Mindfulness practice or meditation improves attention, memory, and emotional regulation, and actually increases gray matter in parts of the brain that are responsible for these functions.

Reframe stress
Physiologically, there’s little difference between anxiety and excitement. A panic attack and an orgasm actually have very similar neuroceptive components.  Both entail a ‘stress response,’ but whether they’re perceived as positive or negative is a matter of labeling. The idea of ‘eustress’ or ‘positive stress’ challenges this. Eustress provides the energy to get through a public speech, go on a romantic date, try a new sport, and so on.

Neuroplastic development requires the following five:

  • Novelty
  • Intention/meaningfulness
  • Attention/Focus
  • Repetition/Practice
  • Time
  • These open the windows of comfort zones.

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