Fear is an emotion and like all emotions, it is sending you a message about what you are pereceiving in your environment. Fear can be one of the more difficult emotions to decipher especially when you are trying to make a change in your life. When you are used to doing something in a very familiar way, it feels safe and comfortable, sometimes even when what you are doing isn’t working for you. This feeling is called being in the comfort zone. For example, if you are someone who prefers staying home instead of going to parties, being at home will be the place you are most comfortable and, hence, your comfort zone. If, however, you decide that you would like to make more friends, you will have to acknowledge that staying home isn’t helping you achieve what you want; you will have to step outside your comfort zone and perhaps go to a few parties.
When you first step outside your comfort zone in life, you will likely experience some type of fear which is very normal. It is impossible to live life without fear nor should you want to. Fear is an emotion we have that alerts us to possible danger and tells us to prepare for it. You should also not just feel the fear and do it anyway unless you have reasonably assessed where the fear is coming from and that what you want to do is really in your best interest. What you really need to do is learn how to distinguish discomfort from distress. Any time you step outside your comfort zone and do something new you will experience some type of discomfort as that is the very definition of being outside the comfort zone. The good news, however, is that if it is just normal discomfort, and you can tolerate staying outside of your comfort zone, you will eventually become comfortable in the new space, and your comfort zone will have expanded. In essence, your comfort zone will follow you, and each time you step outside it and tolerate the initial discomfort of the new space, you give your comfort zone an opportunity to grow. Growing your comfort zone is important if you wish to expand your life experiences and change anything about your life the way it is.
A healthy level of discomfort is a form of anticipatory anxiety which may even improve your ability to perform many activities. Discomfort should feel tolerable. When you are feeling discomfort what you want to do should still feel exciting and like something you are looking forward to. Anxiety becomes a problem, however, and creates what we consider to be distress when it starts to feel overwhelming and it gets in the way of doing something that we want to do by impairing our ability. For example, if you’ve always wanted to sing on stage but your anxiety overwhelms you so much that you completely freeze up, the anxiety is preventing you from achieving what you want. Distress tends to feel consuming and overwhelming, you may even feel panicked or like you might die if you take the action. When you are in a state of distress this is the wrong time to act. Your belief that you can succeed is likely not strong enough to carry you through in a successful way and any unsuccessful experience will just reinforce any negative beliefs you have about doing something new.
Distressful anxiety occurs when your thoughts about what you don’t want in the situation outnumber the thoughts about what you do want. Distress is often the result of focusing mostly on what could go wrong instead of what could go right. Doing something different can make almost everyone feel a sense of normal discomfort, but that feeling doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it if you believe it will bring you closer to something you want in life. If the anxiety starts to feel distressful, try to refocus your thoughts on all the positive reasons why you want to do what you are feeling anxious about. If that doesn’t work you may have stepped too far out of the comfort zone all at once and you will need to pull back a little until the distress goes down to a tolerable level of discomfort. Just remember this rule of thumb—discomfort feels more good than bad, you may feel uncomfortable but you are still really looking forward to where you are going; distress on the other hand feels more bad than good, the negative feelings are overwhelming you and you can’t even focus on where you are trying to go.
Jennice Vilhauer, PhD is the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind's Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life and the developer of Future Directed Therapy.