Gettin’ Up There: Getting comfortable being uncomfortable

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By Mary Petersen

Signal Staff Writer

I am not a runner, but I joined a running club. Actually, my husband joined and bought the family membership so I was enrolled by default. I didn’t mind, although I didn’t have intentions of running.  In fact, for the first few months, I just joined the SCV runners for drinks and dinner after they ran. But pressure from them urging me to try it continued to build. Not only that, I read a spate of articles on the impending doom in the next twenty years of a boomer-Alzheimer’s epidemic (great, one more thing to worry about) and the hopeful news that aerobic exercise may slow cognitive decline. That was enough to get me running.

After four months, I can say that running is not fun. I gasp for breath. I think about how much farther I have to go. I wonder if my endurance will sustain me. I feel slightly apprehensive as I walk onto the track and realize that I could have just stayed home. But at the same time, there is something rewarding about pushing myself to meet the mental and physical challenges.

Running is something I never imagined myself doing. It challenges me in ways that other activities don’t. Researchers say that learning new and demanding life skills within the context of a social group can help us stay mentally sharp as we get older. They say it is important to get out and do something unfamiliar, to attempt something mentally challenging that engages us socially.

Unfortunately, when we are inside our comfort zone, we may be outside of the enhancement zone. There is something called “optimal anxiety” and it’s the slightly elevated stress level just outside our comfort zone. It’s where our productivity reaches its peak. We can’t realize our potential without venturing out of the comfort of our safety net.

Psychologists say that as we get older, our comfort zone tends to shrink. We don’t try new things, change daily routines, or venture out of our social circles because it’s scary or uncomfortable.

Of course, we don’t want to be outside our comfort zone all the time, subjecting ourselves to demanding challenges. Within the safety of our comfort zone, we can recharge, relax and feel at ease. It’s familiar, predictable and secure. We need this kind of comfort.

Nonetheless, the more we risk and stretch ourselves, the more comfortable we feel with new experiences and the wider our comfort zone becomes. This means more of life’s experiences feel less daunting. If we keep expanding our comfort zone, we will open ourselves up to greater fulfillment and improved well-being as we age.

Ironically, getting out of our comfort zone enlarges it. Embracing new experiences and feeling success with these challenges helps us feel more comfortable with situations that previously felt intimidating. When we do retreat to our comfort zone to reflect and synthesize our insights from these experiences, our comfort zone has expanded. It’s one of life’s curious paradoxes— getting uncomfortable leads us to being more comfortable.

Mary Petersen is a retired COC English Instructor, 30 year SCV resident, and two-time breast cancer survivor.

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