Getting outside your comfort zone is valuable. It’s a primary way that the mind and brain reset, learn, grow and develop new insights for your life. There are many ways that we intentionally take ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Sometimes we travel to experience different cultures and ways of doing things, to learn new ways of living. Sometimes we engage in challenging athletic activities as a way of pushing the boundaries of what is possible, discovering new strength and bringing that strength into our lives. Sometimes we go into nature to find peace or connect with our primal roots. In all these cases, we seek an experience outside our usual zone in order to connect to our truest selves, mature and become stronger. And yet, we often neglect a path of growth that exists in our own communities, right below our noses — the path of personal growth through mental health awareness and therapy.
Like travel, therapy offers a way to examine how you think, consider new perspectives, and develop and implement new habits that can improve your life. Like athletics, good therapy helps you become stronger and push the boundaries of what you thought was possible. Like nature, therapy helps you to find inner peace and connect with the core of who you are, re-establishing your sense of purpose. Therapy is a way to travel — to experience new things — without having to book a trip or take much time off work. It gets you outside your traditional perception in a safe and supportive manner where you can learn and see life from a new perspective.
In order to grow, we often need to get outside our comfort zone a little. Therapy does that in three primary ways:
1. Therapy helps you examine and question your belief systems and habits. It explores your current approach to life and provides an opportunity to consider whether a different way might serve your goals better. By opening up your beliefs and automatic habits, you have a chance to learn new perspectives and apply a different approach to a situation.
2. Therapy offers an assessment of your mental health and can illuminate ways of being more productive or of feeling better. Many of us live with depression, anxiety, stress, relationship issues, substance use problems or the artifacts of trauma, and sort of ‘white knuckle’ our way through life, but there’s often relief available.
3. Good therapy offers ways of practicing new skills to bring to your life, such as self-reflection, improved communication, humility, empathy, better thinking and connecting with others. By working on those skills in session, clients benefit from a training ground similar to what they’d use to gain strength and fitness in athletic training.
We know the benefit of having an athletic trainer, yet we often don’t consider the value of a coach for our mind. Most of our lives run on the programs we currently have installed in our minds, which means there is tremendous opportunity for positive change if we make our minds more efficient and effective. Just like an athletic trainer, a professional who is expertly trained in the area in which you want to improve can save you time and many mistakes by helping you get to your goal faster and with a greater measure of success. Therapists help you optimize your mental health, stress levels, self-esteem and relationships by contributing their expertise and experience to your goals.
To truly benefit from therapy, however, you have to get outside your comfort zone. If you’re not willing to go outside your mental comfort zone, change and growth tend to stagnate. Neuroscience research has shown that all of our brains have blind spots, and we can’t identify or work with our own blind spots very well. Often, our partners, kids, friends or coworkers know our blind spots better than we do. A therapist can also see those blind spots, and is additionally trained to help you integrate them into your awareness without judgment.
Therapists sometimes refer to the range of experience in which you are comfortable as your ‘window of tolerance.’ Brain science has shown that expanding the window of tolerance has numerous benefits, such as reduced chronic stress, better decision making, greater capacity for intimacy, and increased ability to regulate emotions. One way to increase our windows of tolerance is to work at their edges: the places where we have mild anxiety due to being slightly uncomfortable or in unfamiliar territory, and yet we also feel secure and supported enough to learn and grow. A brain-savvy therapist helps to accelerate your growth by working at the edges of your window of tolerance, helping you expand the range of thoughts and situations that feel familiar and comfortable and imparting new capacity to your brain.
In short, getting outside your comfort zone, whether it’s in athletics, by heading out into nature, through travel or by examining your mind leads to growth, renewed strength, maturity and a positively evolving self. Therapy can be a valuable part of your personal growth journey if you’re willing to allow a professional into the exploration with you. It is a journey of discovery that, just like adventuring in the great outdoors, helps you implement new, inspired ways of living your life. Let a direct exploration of your mind and mental health be a way to approach your growth this year!
*John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling™. They offer individual, couples, and group therapy to help their clients achieve healthy minds and thrive at life.