Moving outside of your comfort zone feels, well... uncomfortable. For some of us, pushing the boundaries can even induce feelings of panic, fear and anxiety. It can hold us back from making progress in life.

Learning about your 'stretch zone' can help.

What is the 'stretch zone'?

The stretch zone is the space between comfort and panic. Think of it as taking baby steps forward rather than a giant leap. As the space where you can make progress towards your goals without being consumed by anxiety.

Comfort, stretch, and stress

Executive change consultants and authors Markova and Ryan created a model that suggests we have three zones of existence. These are comfort, stretch, and stress.

Stress mode obviously doesn't work. In this zone, we feel overly challenged, and our fear can be overwhelming. If we stay in the stress zone for too long it can cause us to retreat, and prevent us from trying new things in the future.

Fear, or excitement?

But we need to careful not to assume we are in stress mode just because we feel nervous, overexcited, or uncomfortable. If these feelings are not accompanied by fear we are more likely to be the stretch zone.

According to the model, “in this zone things (activities, situations) feel somehow awkward and unfamiliar”, but it’s where real learning can occur.

How To Find Your Stretch Zone

1. Get used to discomfort.

Again, the stretch zone can feel awkward and uncomfortable. But new things inevitably do.

To remind yourself of this, put your hands together, interlocking your fingers. Notice that you’ve instinctively placed one thumb on top of the other? That’s a habit.

Now try placing your other thumb on top instead. Chances are it feels a little strange. Try sitting with the discomfort for a moment and you may notice that after a while it doesn’t feel quite so weird.

The stretch zone is the same. You experience temporary discomfort until the new activity feels more familiar.

2. Reflect on your progress.

When approaching a challenge that feels outside of your comfort zone, it can be helpful to remember times you’ve faced other new situations and learned to adapt. Circumstances that once made you feel nervous are now second nature.

3. Go slow.

Take small, calculated risks that don’t feel overwhelming. It might help to make a plan of where you want to get to, then do something that ‘stretches’ you once a week, or more often if you’re up to it.

4. Check in with how you feel.

It might help to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I feel like I am growing, developing and making progress?
  • Am I really overwhelmed with anxiety, stress or fear? Or am I doing okay?
  • Do I feel motivated and focused? Or unsettled, nervous, and distracted?

The goal is to feel a little challenged, but not so stressed that you can’t function at your best.

5. Retreat when needs be.

If you’re suddenly feeling panicked or overwhelmed, it’s okay to retreat and take a step back.

Also take note if you feel suddenly blank, numb, and unable to take action. The 'freeze response' is now shown by research to be as much a stress response as the traditional 'fight of flight' options.

Just don't see your time of retreat as a sign to quit, but promise yourself that you'll keep going when feel ready.

Need help to overcome fears and be your best self? Therapy helps. Use our easy booking tool to find your perfect therapist now and start moving forward.

Victoria Stokes is a Belfast-based mental health and wellbeing writer who loves espresso martinis and the colour pink.

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