comfort zone

Why Your Comfort Zone May Not Be The Best Zone After WLS

February 2, 2018

In my work with WLS patients, I often hear the word “scared.”

“I’m scared to take a Zumba class….what if people stare or laugh at me?”

“I’m scared to talk to him….what if I say something stupid?”

“I’m scared to go on job interviews….what if I make a fool of myself?”

It is fears such as these—fears of criticism, rejection, or failure—that keep folks in their “comfort zones.”

What Exactly is a Comfort Zone?

A comfort zone is “A psychological state in which one’s environment feels comfortable and familiar, providing a sense of control and minimal stress. It includes a pattern of behaviors that minimize risk and anxiety."

Fundamentally, our comfort zones feel SAFE. They provide refuge from anxiety-provoking experiences.

Before having WLS, Sara (one of my patients) described her comfort zone this way:

As a child, I was teased really badly for my weight, so I just started hiding from the world.  I would come directly home from school and go to my room to escape with books, tv shows, my computer, and snacks.  I never joined clubs or dated; I just spent time with my family.  After high school, I took online college classes and got a degree in business.  Now, I’m a customer service rep and work from home.  I’m still living with my mom and dad.  Part of me wants to get out and live on my own, date, and have more friends….but it’s just really scary.  It’s safer to just keep the status quo.”

As Sara points out, staying in one’s comfort zone is safe—but what are the costs?  In my work with WLS patients, I’ve identified three primary costs:

  1. Missed opportunities to connect with others, especially in friendship and romantic relationships. Many of my WLS patients feel lonely and long to build relationships with friends and potential partners, but the fear of rejection prevents them from “putting themselves out there.”
  2. Missed opportunities to “do what you love” whether in career or leisure-time activities. My WLS patients often share that they dislike their jobs but don’t pursue change because they fear the interview process and “the unknown” of a new position.  Similarly, patients often share that they would love to “live life to the fullest” and try new things in their personal lives—clubs, classes, travel, and hobbies—but are too fearful of criticism, embarrassment, or failure to take the first step.
  3. Missed opportunities to improve physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Many of my patients have expressed an interest in being healthier:  joining a gym, taking a yoga or meditation class, or attending church, but fear “looking foolish” or “having nobody to talk to.”

In a nutshell, if you’re stuck in a comfort zone, you might be missing opportunities to lead a more fulfilling, connected, and healthy life. Are you stuck in a comfort zone? If so, below are some ways to ease out of a comfort zone.

4 Ways To Ease Out Of Your Comfort Zone

1. Start with actions that move you out just slightly out of your comfort zone

For most people, the thought of making dramatic changes is simply too scary. In fact, research shows that when folks are asked to step too far out of their comfort zones, anxiety spikes and performance and/or productivity drops. The goal is to seek experiences that lead to “optimal anxiety”—just the right amount of anxiety to push you, but not overwhelm you.

For example, asking a person with social anxiety to go to a party full of strangers would be terrifying, and would likely cause the person to turn around at the door! However, if that same person challenged herself to ask a friendly acquaintance to lunch, the potential anxiety could be much more manageable—and follow-through much more likely.

Similarly, asking someone with “interview anxiety” to quit his job and do a resume blitz would likely be completely overwhelming. Instead, he might ease slightly out of his comfort zone by making an appointment with a career counselor to explore interview strategies.

Can you think of an action that you could take to push yourself slightly out of your comfort zone?

2. Change up your daily routine in small but meaningful ways

Check out a new restaurant or cuisine. Try a slightly different style of clothing and see how it feels. Listen to a new radio station. Watch a news channel that you don’t usually watch. Browse the magazine aisle and buy one that you’ve never read before. As you become increasingly comfortable with small life changes (and experience the benefits of them), you’ll find it easier and easier to make bigger, more impactful changes in your life.

What small changes might you make this week to ease slightly out of your daily routines?

3. Encourage yourself

As mentioned earlier, making life changes, even small ones, can be daunting.  Therefore, it’s important to engage in encouraging self-talk throughout the process.  Here are some supportive statements to use as you step out of your comfort zone:

  • “What would I tell a friend if she were taking this step?”  Really think about what encouraging words you would say to a friend who is feeling anxious about making a change.  Then tell yourself the same thing- be a supportive friend to yourself!
  • “What is the best that could happen if I take this step? What is the worst?”  Take an honest look at the likely consequences of stepping out of your comfort zone.  You will probably find that the likely consequences are far less scary than you originally thought- and potentially exciting!
  • “This is simply an experiment. I will learn from it and take the next step accordingly.”  It’s important to remember that stepping out of your comfort zone is simply an opportunity to gather data about what is healthy and valuable for you. It is a learning experience- not a life sentence!  If you learn that a certain experience isn’t right for you, you don’t have to do it again.  If you learn that it has positive consequences, great!
  • “I can do this,” “I’ve got this,” “I’m proud of myself for trying something new,” or whatever encouraging mantra feels good to you.

What might your encouraging mantra be?

4. Be strategic about managing your anxiety

As you experiment with leaving your comfort zone, you’ll want to be strategic about managing any resulting anxiety—even “optimal anxiety” is still anxiety after all!  Below are some science-backed strategies that calm the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When your body and mind are relaxed, you’re better equipped to face the challenge of leaving your comfort zone.

  • Do breath work. Breathe deeply through your belly for five to twenty minutes.  Silently say “I am” on the inhalation and “relaxed” on the exhalation.
  • Try progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). This is an incredibly relaxing exercise in which you slowly tense and release your muscle groups, creating a deep state of relaxation. Many free PMR exercises can be found online.
  • Watch a comedy.  Laughing actually reduces stress!
  • Do something artistic or crafty.  Engaging the creative part of your brain is a great stress-reliever.
  • Try a guided imagery exercise.The mind and body relax when you visualize yourself having a peaceful experience such as relaxing on the beach. Many free imagery exercises can be found online.
  • Make sleep a priority and take naps as needed.  Regular rest is strongly associated with stress-reduction.
  • Write in a journal. Reflect on what it’s like to step out of your comfort zone. Also, take time to write about what you’re grateful for, as gratitude is associated with reduced stress.
  • Spend time in nature.  This has an almost-immediate stress-reducing effect.
  • Play some soothing music to relax your mind, body, and spirit.
  • Try aromatherapy.  Scents such as lavender and lemon relieve stress and lower heart rate. Pair aromatherapy with any of the strategies above for a truly calming experience.

One final note:  It’s perfectly okay to return to your comfort zone regularly

Stepping out of one’s comfort zone certainly has many benefits. It offers valuable opportunities to connect with others, engage in meaningful activities, and live a healthier life. It is, however, important to remember that it’s absolutely fine—and even healthy—to return to your comfort zone regularly. We all need time in a truly safe, comfortable mental space to relax, rejuvenate, and take inventory of our experiences.  The goal is to strike a healthy balance of risk-taking and relaxing.

Wishing you the very best as you venture outside of your comfort zone!

comfort zone


Tanie Miller Kabala, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and integrative wellness coach who specializes in treating weight loss surgery patients. She wrote her book, The Weight Loss Surgery Coping Companion:  A Practical Guide to Coping with Post-Surgery Emotions to help patients navigate the emotional journey of weight loss surgery. Read more articles by Tanie!