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Mental Health

The Case for Comfort Zones

The comfort zone is a mental state in which a person feels familiar with things, at ease and in control, with minimal stress and anxiety. It is also, curiously, the state that we’re most eager to leave. It’s shunned in almost every motivational speech ever; the phrase “step out of your comfort zone” is tossed around so often, that the comfort zone almost seems like a dangerous and scary place to be in. 

In striving for accomplishment, doing only what we’re familiar with can deprive us of the chance to try new things and progress in the long term. But despite our aversion to the comfort zone, it’s not without some strong merits. And once we recognise and accept these merits, we may actually use the comfort zone to our advantage, rather than having to constantly reject it. 

Here are some arguments for the comfort zone:

Comfort zones save mental resources

Decision-making can be mentally demanding. Psychologists coin the term “heuristics” to refer to rule-of-thumb ways of thinking that help save our mind’s energy. When deciding what to eat for breakfast, for example, we tend to choose what we always eat because it’s easy to know what the food will taste like. 

Similarly, doing familiar things that we can comfortably control can free up our cognitive space for other important matters. I love trying new workouts at the gym, as they improve my fitness by challenging my body in novel ways, but on days when I need to focus on school work, I find it much more helpful to stay in my “comfort zone” of old workout routines. Familiar routines require less planning and adapting to, and are therefore less taxing both physically and mentally. 

While it’s true that comfort zones lack the kind of stimulation needed for growth, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; being in the comfort zone of one task allows us to allocate more energy to another task, regulating our stress level and preventing us from burning out.

Comfort zones provide confidence and security in uncertain times

My first year of university was full of new experiences. I took up Psychology, which was a completely new subject for me, along with Linguistics as a double major; I moved into a hall where I didn’t know anyone and had to make new friends; I tried out clubs that were totally foreign to me, like hip hop dance. While these new experiences were fun and exciting, when I look back on my first semester in NTU, the part that stood out as a genuine source of joy was, oddly enough, my Linguistics classes. 

This is because, having studied Linguistics before university, I felt much less uncertainty and anxiety in these classes, compared to other aspects of university life where the deluge of new information overwhelmed me. Since I was familiar with the basic concepts of Linguistics, I was more confident and motivated to do well in it. Soon, those modules became a sort of “safe space” where I felt rejuvenated by discussions that I could handle with relative ease, especially after a long day of trying to find my footing in the mysterious new world of statistics and experiments.
So even if you’re someone who likes to challenge themselves with unknown adventures and great goals, there could also be value in doing familiar work that exactly matches your skills. In fact, sometimes we need people to be in their comfort zone to perform their job safely and optimally. For instance, you wouldn’t want your doctor to be constantly outside of their comfort zones when treating patients. We look to experts for help, precisely because they can comfortably and effortlessly carry out special skills within their own area of knowledge.

Comfort zones can be expanded

Amateurs can train to become experts; the number of things we’re able to comfortably do can also increase as we learn and develop our skills. This applies to social situations, too: I used to find it difficult to be around people with different worldviews from my own, and was comfortable only around a fixed circle of friends who shared similar values with me. But after meeting more people, and forming unexpected friendships with those I didn’t think I’d relate to, I can now comfortably interact with and sometimes learn from people whose ideas and opinions disagree with mine.
To explain this in more academic terms, behavioural scientists have found that as our anxiety increases, our work performance increases too. However, there comes a point where the anxiety is so high that it debilitates us, worsening our performance instead. Fortunately, our “comfort zone” at low levels of stress can be expanded; after spending some time in the “optimal performance zone”, our skills improve, and we’re able to adjust to higher levels of stress, reaching an enhanced state of steady performance.

It’s a misconception, therefore, to see the comfort zone as a never-changing force holding you back from reaching your potential. The truth is, it warns you (although sometimes inaccurately) of possible dangers that can threaten your usual functioning; but as you grow and tackle those dangers, your comfort zone grows too.

I think it’s unhelpful to draw an absolute line between what’s in and out of a so-called comfort zone. Such a dichotomy makes it seem scary or difficult to cross over to the other side, whereas actually, stepping in or out of the comfort zone may be a much easier process than we imagine. 

Rather than treating the comfort zone like a hindrance (that you need to “overcome”), or even an enemy (that “kills” you), perhaps a more productive way is to see it as your faithful companion, who works in your favour by protecting you and charting your growth. So don’t feel too terrible if you ever find yourself in a comfort zone — maybe it’s just what you need at that point. More importantly, keep a “growth mindset” and try to expand your comfort zone, even just incrementally, instead of letting it dictate what you can or cannot do.

The “hustle culture” of today encourages us to constantly push our limits and take on unfamiliar challenges to yield ever more results. Although this stimulates our growth, it can also make us overly stressed and burnt out. When we’re too caught up in the actions of life, we might find ourselves wondering, “Do I actually want to do this?” and at times like these, our comfort zone might just give us the answer.

Ruijia Huang

Nanyang Tech '23

A Psychology & Linguistics undergraduate who is a little obsessed with lifting and Chinese food.
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