If your home has a programmable thermostat, you’re familiar with the idea of a comfort zone—when your home gets too cool, the heating system kicks in and when it gets too warm, the cooling system kicks in. The thermostat keeps the temperature within your set comfort zone—not too hot, not too cold, but just right—just the way Goldilocks would have it.
In much the same way, your brain has its own programmable thermostat. You set the parameters for the comfort zone—not too scary, not too boring, but just right—and then your brain complies by helping you maintain your routines that keep you in your comfort zone. But what if “just right” isn’t so right after all? What if “just right” is actually the equivalent of being stuck in a rut?
The Danger of Routine
A routine is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, routines provide a sense of structure and efficiency to our lives. Routines become harmful, though, when they are rigid and we are not willing to step out of them. Sometimes our routines make us feel great; other times, our routines make us miserable, but we resist changing them because we’re more afraid of the unknown than we are of the familiarity of a routine we don’t even like.
We all want to feel safe and comfortable, but sometimes staying safely ensconced in our comfort zone can actually lead to a sense of complacency and boredom. Life is about change and growth, not boredom and familiarity—but sometimes we forget that. Routines, comfort zones, and automatic habits can often lead to missed opportunities—we’re so focused on doing what we always do that we fail to see a new opportunity that is right in front of us. There is a lot of truth to the old adage: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
The Benefit of Risk
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Taking a risk—even a small one—can have a huge payoff in terms of health and mood. Taking risks creates new neurological pathways and connections in the brain. When we try new things, we experience a spike in dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that improves attention, concentration, and muscle movement. This surge in dopamine results in a boost in mood and also serves to support the immune system. In other words, trying new things can actually be good for your health—mentally and physically.
Risk taking doesn’t have to involve adrenaline-driven activities like skydiving or free climbing to have value. Even the smallest risks or leaps of faith can produce neurological results. In fact, something as simple as taking a new route to work can result in new neural pathways and creativity.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” She was onto something—step out of your comfort zone, away from the familiar, into the fear, to see what you’re capable of.
Break Out of Your Comfort Zone
Ready to take a step out of your comfort zone? The results could be surprisingly rewarding. When is the last time you tried something new? If you’re guilty of following a tried-and-true routine, consider taking some baby steps outside of your comfort zone and see what unfolds.
- Make small changes: Try taking a new route to work. If you always drive to work, try taking the bus or walking. Eat lunch outside instead of at your desk. Sleep on the opposite side of the bed. Try something new for breakfast. Shop at a different grocery store. Wear your hair in a different hairstyle.
- Try something different or weird: Don’t just do something new; do something that is totally out of character for you. When you always choose the same types of activities, your experiences become limited. For example, if you’re already quite athletic, trying a new sport isn’t much of a challenge. Instead, try something that would surprise yourself and others—try throwing clay in a pottery class, pick up a musical instrument, or learn a new language.
- Make a new friend: Friends expose us to new ideas and experiences. Join a club or group that introduces you to new people with different interests and watch your world expand.
- Say no to no and yes to yes: Banish the “automatic no” from your vocabulary. You don’t have to say yes to everything, but at least pause before saying no. Give yourself time to ponder each invitation and request. Consider saying yes where you would normally say no.
- Make a list of what scares you: Make a list of things that feel like a stretch—things that intrigue you, but scare you. Making the list can actually help you surmount the fears and obstacles that are standing in your way. Once you have your list, make a commitment to try one thing on that list.