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In my last post I began discussing the various challenges of that last stop on the Chronic Anxiety Cycle Tour, the Comfort Zone. I talked about how the Comfort Zone is restrictive – i.e., that it tends to want to push us back away from whatever scares us, building a wall in our thinking to keep us away from that scary subject.

But Constrictive Is Just The Start

One of the challenges of the Comfort Zone’s tendency to shrink away from danger is that it then starts to limit our range of motion in our lives and thinking. It isn’t just constrictive – it is restrictive as well.

My Mom is a good example of this quality of the Comfort Zone. My Mom was, once upon a time, a big fan of driving. She owned (when I was in Junior High School) a Triumph MG drop-top. She loved that car! I remember her taking us to her school (she taught Junior High, oddly enough), a wildly colorful scarf around her hair, the wind roaring over us as we sat in the tiny back seat, and her telling jokes and laughing as we thundered through Las Vegas.

Somewhere along the way she began to find driving uncomfortable. She was never crazy about freeway driving, ever, and even in the Triumph preferred surface streets. As the years passed she became more and more nervous about driving. She gave up the Triumph for a “safer” car, a Ford, and then began asking her children to run the errands she used to do – go to the grocery store, pick up dinner, etc.

And all this while still in her 50’s! By the time she retired at 64 she had completely given up driving, depending on my Dad or one of us kids to take her where she wanted to go. She always warned us to be careful when we left the house, and was clearly uncomfortable with the whole subject of driving.

The truth is it was horrible to watch her slowly, sadly losing her freedom of motion with respect to driving. Worse still, when pressed on it, she just changed the subject and got mad if you continued talking about it.

Let’s Just Not Go There

Maybe the worst part about this aspect of the Comfort Zone is that we’re mostly unaware that we’re losing our freedom of motion. We begin to adapt to our shrinking world – because that beats all to hell (in our thinking) having to consider the alternative – facing our anxiety.

We also get really good at arguing for our limitations/restrictions. No, we really don’t like going to parties (because we’re afraid of meeting new people, or saying something stupid, or whatever we’re afraid of in groups of people.) No, we really don’t need to travel (because we’re afraid of something bad happening when we’re away from home, or whatever we’re afraid of when considering travel.)

No, even though we HATE our current job and would probably give an arm or a leg for a different one (let alone actually chase down the kind of work or life that REALLY interests us), we’re OK with this current job we can’t stand. We say that because it feels safer (notice the use of the word “feels”) to stay in this yucky job, rather than take the risk of facing our fears and trying for something better.

We are NOT Losers!

Another risk of this Comfort Zone business is how quick we are to trash ourselves, beat ourselves up for our refusal to take our fears on. We’re losers, we’re failures, we’re weak, blah blah blah. None of that is true! We are AFRAID. The strongest person in the world wrestles with fear.

No, the problem isn’t that we’re losers. The problem is that we’re reacting to our fears, to the restrictions placed on us by our reacting to our Flight or Fight Response, by stepping away and allowing our worlds to shrink.

OK – Good To Know – What Then Shall We Do?

The biggest thing to think about with this restrictive quality of the Comfort Zone is to stop arguing for our limitations. Even the personal challenge to NOT just meekly accept our restrictions can go a long ways towards helping energize us to take action about our fears.

It FEELS easier, and definitely safer, if we just quietly let the Comfort Zone hred us into a quiet corner of our lives. It ISN’T better, and it definitely doesn’t do anything to help us overcome our fears.

Where is your life shut down right now? What would you like to be able to do or experience? Warning – even asking this question will potentially piss off your Comfort Zone. That’s GOOD – just expect some twinges from your habitual Flight or Fight Responses. For me that usually meant some uckiness in my stomach, the threat of some dizziness (talk about scary, for me) and almost always some sadness and anger.

ALL GOOD. Our Comfort Zones get entirely too much control of our lives. Maybe it is time to start thinking about taking the wheel away from that Comfort Zone?

Next up – more on the Comfort Zone and the qualities that make it hard to unplug those fears.

How are you, my fellow Fear-Busters?  It’s my hope that you’re taking some useful information away from this blog and my discussion of the basics of the Fear Mastery map I’ve developed in the last year.  I know from my own brutal experience with anxiety and fear just how life-draining doing battle with these issues can be, and my whole goal with this writing and work is to make those tools as accessible and useful as possible.

Because make no mistake, if a person’s fears/worries have reached the Comfort Zone it is going to be something of a battle to deal with them.  I had the opportunity to discuss this work around Fear Mastery with a class group I teach last week, and some very specific terms surfaced in that discussion:

Constrictive:  The Comfort Zone is always driving us to more safety.  So, metaphorically speaking, it tends to want to keep pushing you away from danger.  As a result your personal zone of safety tends to shrink.  Yikes!  Every person on the planet has experienced this in one way or another.  We were comfortable doing something two years ago, but we’ve been away from it for a while, and it was a little unnerving when we used to do it, so now it’s become downright uncomfortable during the time gap.  We find reasons not to go back to it, whatever it was, and the Comfort Zone continues its slow constriction.  A classic example is when an elderly person falls and breaks a bone.  What seemed OK before now seems scary, and the great temptation is to avoid that behavior that got us hurt in the first place – and the Comfort Zone constricts.  We even have a cultural expression for pushing back on that constriction – “get back on the horse.”  Most of us however don’t, and so something that was once not risky now seems so.  And of course we get REALLY good at explaining the constriction, to ourselves and others.  And while not all of our reasons are bad, the end result often is – we have a decreased range of motion in our lives.  Which in turn makes the Comfort Zone:

Restrictive:  The Comfort Zone will literally wall us off from activities, options for choice, movement, you name it.  As I mentioned in the last post the Comfort Zone is much like a series of machine-gun emplacements, and you’re on the wrong side of the guns!  You can often “see” the thing you’d like to do, or feel you need to do, just beyond the barrier of the Comfort Zone, but you don’t feel like you can engage that behavior or do that thing you’d like to do.  Your options have shrunk, and you might even report to other people that you can’t do this, or you’re unable to do that.  When, of course, you CAN – you just don’t feel safe doing it.

Evasive:  As I mentioned in the last post here the Comfort Zone works very hard to keep you from confronting your fears, and so you are easily distracted/pulled away when you consider confronting your Comfort Zone boundaries.  In a very real sense the Comfort Zone is evading your thinking – trying to fade from view so you don’t feel anxious or fearful.  Think of how effective, and how insidious, such a protective mechanism is!  I have sat through a dozen conversations in the last 3 weeks alone where someone one day sees something they’d like to challenge in their Comfort Zone restrictions, only to, often only days later, decide not to, or forget to, or explain why they can’t.  It’s impressive, and a little scary.  As I’ve said before, challenging the Comfort Zone takes some energy and effort – and often repeated attempts to change the boundaries we’ve worked so hard to create.

None of this sounds like very good news, I know.  A number of people I’m working with and talking with at the moment express very similar frustrations with the restricted, constricted feeling they have around specific fears in their lives, and they want their freedom.  It is in fact this sense of constriction and lack of freedom that I believe leads directly to Panic Attacks and depression both.  How long can hope be sustained in the face of feeling trapped?  And what person wants to be trapped?   This isn’t a small thing to think about.  We have entire industries that are focused on attempting to relieve people’s anxiety and depression, mostly through medication, when what people need more than any other single thing is a sense of agency in the face of their fears.  Medication is highly useful, no question about that – but its use is around giving people breathing space, a chance to step away from the crushing physical and emotional drain of anxiety and depression, so they can in turn face into their fears and move past them.  Medication by itself won’t address or solve the problems that created anxiety and depression in the first place; it won’t change the thinking that generates those feelings. 

So how about some good news to counteract all these Comfort Zone issues?  I’ll expand on this exact topic in my next posts, but here’s a piece to get started – the Comfort Zone, in addition to the characteristics listed above, is also:

Responsive!  The Comfort Zone will definitely respond to efforts to move the walls back.  You have to face into the barrage of scary thoughts and feelings, and you have to push through them – but in a surprisingly short time your Comfort Zone will get the message and adjust to your new instructions.  Because we don’t want to forget that WE are the builders of the Comfort Zone, and WE are the ones who get to decide where the boundaries should be.  Is it easy?  Usually no.  Will it often suck to face into the work?  You bet.  Is it worth it?  No question.  After all, many people suffer every day under the suffocating restrictions of their Comfort Zone without hope of things easing up on their own.  Which is better – some temporary fear and discomfort that results in decreased fear and restriction overall, or ongoing fear and anxiety? 

Next post – more on what we can do about breaking the Chronic Anxiety Cycle and shaking free of our Comfort Zone…

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