Why comfort zone and stretching zone can be (almost) one

Where do comfort zone and stretching zone start and end, what should we know about them? – I have shared my thoughts about this in my workshops and talks, and at the FIGT2016 conference.

When talking about growing, growth mindset, resilience etc. people often tend to generalize about these zones, which leads to some misunderstandings like when people assume that “the magic happens outside of your comfort zone”, meaning that one needs to step way out of his or her comfort zone to succeed.

Karl Rohnke’s Comfort, Stretch and Panic model often mentioned in this context is based on the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance, originally developed by the psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908.

According to their model (here below), peak performance is achieved when people experience a moderate level of pressure.

©Ute Limacher-Riebold 2021

When we experience too much or too little pressure, our performance declines, sometimes severely, whereas when the pressure reaches a certain level, our performance can reach a peak.

The “art” of performance consists in knowing our own boundaries or recognizing the moment when the pressure gets too big and we start approaching the panic zone. 

Comfort zone

When we are in our comfort zone, activities are familiar. We recognize patterns and feel comfortable and confident in our performance. We are calm and at ease here. If we stay too long in our comfort zone, we can become complacent and find little motivation or desire to change.

Some people think that they thrive in the comfort zone, but the truth is that they stay in that zone for a reason. For example, if we decide not to learn a new language because we find it too difficult or we don’t like it, it’s not that we couldn’t learn it, it is because we are not motivated to change, to invest in this effort for a reason. This reason can be related or not related at all with the language itself: it can be that we are convinced that we are not good at learning a language or that it is not one of our top priorities. – Either way, we are not defining a goal and not taking any step.

The positive effect of staying in our comfort zone is that we feel comfortable, safe. It is the place where we can gather our strength, recover and “fill our cup”.

The negative effect of staying in our comfort zone is that we can become bored by doing or thinking the same things. We can feel trapped if we would like to change something but don’t know how.

Stretch zone

When we are in our stretch zone we push ourselves, we challenge ourselves with something relatively new or unknown.
In our stretch zone we don’t feel overwhelmed, but excited, energized and motivated. Usually we take the decision ourselves to stretch ourselves in order to stay in this zone during a challenge.

If someone else asks us to stretch ourselves and we are not ready or even afraid to do so, we would easily slip into the Panic zone instead, or demand to go back to our much more familiar and less overwhelming comfort zone.

Panic zone 

When we are in the panic zone we are scared, distressed, overwhelmed. We are in constant alert mode, sleep poorly or not at all. We have the typical fight or flight reaction: we either want to run away, fight the situation or we freeze, i.e. avoid to face the situation. We are so uncomfortable and overwhelmed that we can not make any progress.

We all have our very own comfort, stretch and panic zones, in different domains of life. Furthermore, these zones vary from person to person, and from situation to situation.

What makes it so difficult to find out what would make us panic, what we are comfortable with and where we start stretching ourselves is that we sometimes don’t know our boundaries, our own limits. And even if we know them, since the last time we experienced them we have changed, the situation has changed and we might react in an unexpected way.

We are naturally wired to grow, to learn. But in order to do so we also need to know how to deal with failure. Knowing that failure and mistakes are necessary to learn, to stretch ourselves, is essential.

According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, there are four main influencers that can affect our reaction to a situation of change or any kind of challenge: the skill level, personality, trait anxiety and task complexity. 

Skill Level

Our skill level effects our performance on a given task. If we are highly trained, and are confident in our skill, we are more likely to cope and perform well in high pressure situations. We can base our response on experience with confidence and competence.

Personality

This is an aspect where I have my doubts as psychologists believe that “extroverts are better at handling pressure than introverts, and likewise, introverts perform better in the lack of pressure”. I think this personality trait is more linked to our mindset: if we have a growth mindset we are more prone to perform better in any situation, whereas if we have a limiting mindset, we won’t. 

Trait Anxiety

If we are self confident we handle situations in a more relaxed way. We won’t question ourselves over our abilities and we would respond in a competent way, i.e. we would maintain composure in stressful situations.

Task Complexity

The more difficult and complex a task or situation is for us, the more it will negatively influence our performance. We might be able to walk while half asleep, but we’d need to be fully awake when flying an airplane. Furthermore, the level of complexity of a task varies from one individual to the other.

If we are still unexperienced, our skill level might not be the right one to face the challenge, our personality might hinder us to stretch ourselves to an optimal performance level, we also might feel anxious in certain situations (for example if someone is afraid of hight), and the task could be too complex for us right now.

If we have a growth mindset, find meaning in what happens to us, if we are prone to stretching ourselves and improving our skills or learning new ones, we are good at change and resilient, creative and committed.

But we can’t constantly stretch ourselves because we need to get back into our comfort zone in order to find the right balance and gather the energy for the next stretch.

For example if we have to hold a very important speech in front of a high demanding audience and this requires some stretching because we aren’t that confident yet, we might want to do something in our comfort zone, going for a swim, a walk or spending a day reading a book, to fill our cup and be able to perform at our highest peak.

If we wouldn’t get this “rest” in our comfort zone from time to time, and constantly stretch ourselves up to the limit between stretch and panic zone, we would quickly feel exhausted and burn out.   

Furthermore, while setting our goals, we should rather set smaller, attainable goals that require regular stretching, instead of aiming to the goal “far far away” and in our panic zone:

When we get into the habit to stretch ourselves in a healthy way, that allows us to recover, rest and get energized, we will not only reach the attainable goals but also manage our comfort zone to grow.

In fact, the more we stretch ourselves, the more we feel comfortable with situations that were challenging before because meanwhile we gained more confidence and competence:

©Ute Limacher-Riebold 2021

This topic is part of my workshops  Intercultural Communication and Resilience for parents and teenagers and was the topic of my presentation at the FIGT 2016 conference in Amsterdam.

If you would like to have more information or discuss this topic with me, please leave a comment here below or contact me at info@UtesInternationalLounge.com .

You can watch my video about this topic here: