I promised last post that I would start into a detailed discussion of the Comfort Zone, which, in the Fear Mastery map I’ve developed, is the final stage of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle.  In the work of the last few weeks I’ve begun to realize just how remarkable the Comfort Zone is, and how much it can influence our thinking.  With this post I am starting what will turn into a short series of posts on the Comfort Zone, how it develops, how it restricts our behavior and thinking, and then I will turn to some of the tools that we can use to shake free/reshape our Comfort Zone boundaries.

I don’t know who the first person was who coined the term “The Comfort Zone” to describe the perimeter of rules and boundaries that we create around ourselves for protection.  My first clearly cited reference came from Peter McWilliam’s excellent book “Do It!”, which I first read back in the middle 1990’s.  The bottom line is that the Comfort Zone outlines what we each learn is safe and is not safe as we make our way through the world.  As little kids we learn to look both ways before we cross the street, not touch hot stoves (a particularly powerful Comfort Zone boundary in my experience), not stick screwdrivers in wall sockets, etc.  This is the Comfort Zone in one of its most useful functions – protecting us from real, physical danger.  And it is a pretty powerful protection too.  I once tested this by attempting to (at 2 in the morning, when there wasn’t a car for miles) cross a small residential street without looking both ways.  It was not only difficult, but also extremely uncomfortable.  I had warning bells going off the entire time, and found myself surprised at the energy it took to NOT look left or right as I did it.  Good thing, yes?  This is a natural extension of the Flight or Fight Response, this developing of rules for physical safety. 

But the Comfort Zone doesn’t limit us to physical safety issues.  We also learn what is mentally and emotionally risky as we grow and develop, and those dangers also get built into our Comfort Zone.  One of the classic examples is most people’s fear of speaking to a group.  I’ve been teaching Public Speaking for years and years (starting in graduate school as a TA) and I can tell you first-hand that most people carry this fear.  It ranges from mild discomfort to outright terror (and this is only the sample of people actually willing to take the class!) but it is fear, whatever the intensity.  Now I suspect most people know that they can’t actually get physically injured talking to a group of people, however scary it might feel.  That doesn’t make much difference – all they know is that speaking to a group is frightening.  Another example is cultural taboos – rules we learned early on about what topics are safe or not safe to think about out loud (examples might include sexual behavior, bathroom functions, or political beliefs.)

In a very real sense the Comfort Zone is the final home of our most serious fears.  If you’ve been following the blog so far you’ve learned that we start acquiring fears when we turn a problem into a crisis – when we activate our Flight or Fight Response over something that we can’t resolve immediately.  We start generating “what if?” scenarios that scare us, (The Worry Engine), then latch onto one of those scary scenarios and begin treating it as real (The Indefinite Negative Future), then in our efforts to avoid that frightening future we start avoiding thinking and feeling around the topic (Anticipatory Anxiety.)   If we don’t identify this path and convert the issue back into a problem or problems to solve, as opposed to a crisis that is frightening us in the now and must be resolved immediately, we will wind up walling that fear away – taking the behavior we develop during Anticipatory Anxiety and creating a Comfort Zone boundary. 

And it when it reaches that stage it is going to take some real work to undo.  By the time a concern or fear reaches this point we’ve probably been stressing about it for a fair amount of time, and it has been scaring us all along the way.  We’re weary of being scared and worried, we just want it to stop, and when we build a Comfort Zone boundary around it we can (to some extent, since it hasn’t gone away) take a break from the “tiger” we’ve created in our thinking.  We stop thinking about it (mostly), we reflexively shut down and move away from the topic or fear when it is presented to us, and we (most importantly) usually stop then trying to solve the issue.  And, in addition to the topic itself being frightening, we’re also now pretty strongly conditioned to avoid the emotions and physical sensations that accompany the scary topic for us – a process which also begins back in the Indefinite Negative Future stage, but now has become just about as scary as the topic itself.

It is an elegant solution – you’re afraid, you build a boundary to protect yourself, and you (mostly) then stop being afraid, since you’re no longer thinking about or experiencing the feelings/sensations associated with the issue.  It is also the exact opposite thing from what we need to do.  Because, unlike a hot stove or crossing the street, the topic we’ve walled off is a problem we almost certainly need to address, to think through and resolve.  And we’re not going to do that unless we’re thinking about it!  Not thinking about it in crisis mode (holy crap, what am I going to do, this is really bad, this will be a disaster, etc.) thinking, but problem-solving thinking (what are my options, who can help me, what plans do I have to make, etc.)

This is easy to say – but it is much harder to do when a fear or anxiety reaches this stage in the Chronic Anxiety Cycle.  That doesn’t mean we can’t do it – not by a long shot.  But it will take some work and energy!  And there are other issues to contend with in the Comfort Zone that need to be taken into account as we approach that work.  More on that in my next post…