In a pushy society that often invalidates and sometimes ridicules comfort zones, we have a bit to learn about their value and importance.
If you read my first article of this series, you already know how I feel about the “Just Do It” mentality, and why I think that being a bit more sensitive to our worries and fears can be adaptive.
The thing is, the comfort zone is not just about feeling, well…comfortable. It’s an area in which confidence is readily available and often where a high level of thinking and learning is accessible.
Higher learning and skill acquisition happens mostly in the higher levels of the brain, the specialized portion that sets humans apart from other animals. But just because we have these higher portions of the brain, does not mean that we always have access to them.
When you are in a state of stress, your lower brain takes over for survival purposes. And this is a really great thing, because survival is pretty fantastic.
That being said, when our “survival brain” takes over, we have limited access to our higher level thinking. I don’t know about you, but when I’m working with my horse I want my thinking brain to be available. And this is where your comfort zone comes in.
When you are comfortable and confident, you don’t need your survival brain to kick in because you are not perceiving threats from your environment. And if you are not consumed with fighting off monsters (e.g., plastic bags and umbrellas – because we are horse people and we know the terrors of these items) then we are more ready to learn.
So, let’s break these ideas down with a little neuroscience to support your understanding. (Did I mention I’m a nerd?) The brain has a small region called the amygdala which is responsible for assigning emotions to experiences and for recognizing and reacting to danger quickly.
This group of neurons can quickly assess danger and elicit an adaptive response from our body before we have time to process the danger with our higher brain.
Thus, if you are walking down a road and a car swerves toward you, you will jump out of the way almost instantly. To support this reaction, the amygdala activates our Fight/Flight/Freeze response and prompts the release of cortisol into our systems. These act to “take over” the brain and body for survival.
Here’s the tricky thing about our amygdala – sometimes it assigns danger and elicits a response when there is no imminent danger, when the danger is fairly low, or when the danger would be better addressed by the higher levels of the brain.
But don’t forget, it takes over making it difficult to access our higher brain. Herein lies the problem because when we are learning, or are trying to access high-level skills sets, we need to be able to access our “thinking brain”!
So let’s tie this neuroscience back into our “Comfort Zones.” When you are operating within an experience in which you feel comfortable, safe, and confident, you are not giving your amygdala a reason to initiate a stress response. Thus, your higher brain is readily available for work.
On the other hand, if you are pushing yourself into doing something that causes anxiety or fear, your amygdala is activating your Fight/Flight/Freeze, making it harder to think clearly and efficiently.
When you think about this, it’s no real surprise. Consider a time in which you were trying to do something that was out of your comfort zone. Most of your thoughts are consumed with worry and you feel anxious.
I’d like to posit that, by actively working to operate within our Comfort Zones, we can support improved performance. So, how we do find this Comfort Zone as we ride? There are two main ways.
First, we can adjust factors to shift ourselves and our endeavor to be within our Comfort Zone. As you consider your goals and your tasks, what is causing you distress? Can you decrease your anxiety by changing something such as the location where you are working or who is present to help? Would you feel more confident if you prepared your horse differently, or perhaps worked with a different horse?
Second, you can grow your Comfort Zone so that more experiences fit within it. This happens naturally as we make gains in skill and become more capable. To support this, we can use specific strategies such as verbalization, journaling, and intentional practice to increase our skill and therefore our Comfort Zones.
Okay, so full disclosure here. I am an occupational therapist by trade and I work to use therapeutic strategies and neuro-based concepts to support the equestrian. I am a big believer that we need to understand how our brains function so that we can be empowered to support ourselves in our work. I love teaching about Neuro in a common-sense way.
But, here’s the deal – the brain is incredibly complex and this article is an attempt to offer a functional explanation of what is occurring neurally during specific circumstances in order to present a working article from which readers can learn from and move forward with. It is not the whole picture because this would require multiple text books and would still fall short because we are learning more about the brain every day.
This abridged explanation inherently falls short of describing the multidimensional occurences within the brain during the time you spend with your horse. You could argue the fact that when you are outside of your comfort zone, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in to put you into a more alert and reactive state.
Could this support your performance at times? Absolutely! Please note that I don’t say that you should never work outside of your comfort zone, I am simply presenting the benefits from working within it and proposing that we use it more.
If the concepts in this article or my previous one interest you, please stop by www.hersequine.com where you can find a lot more! I explore these and other ideas more completely in my blog and am always looking to connect with new people and support their adventures! I truly believe that the work that women do with horses is immensely important and worth supporting and sharing.
Katie Pacheco, OTR/L, is an avid horsewoman who has always believed in the unique power of horses to change lives. She is an occupational therapist and has developed the H.E.R.S. Program which is aimed at facilitating performance, engagement, and intention for the horsewoman. To find out more about the program and to read her blogs, visit www.hersequine.com. Katie is actively working to grow this program in order to reach more women. While on the website please consider sharing through social media!
Disclaimer: Katie Pacheco currently works as an occupational therapist, and the ideas presented as part of the H.E.R.S. Program are within the scope of her knowledge as an occupational therapist, as the work of an OT centers around supporting meaningful engagement in daily activities. Katie truly believes that horses are a significant source of meaning, confidence, and joy for horsewomen and she hopes to support those ideals with her program. This program is not designed as a riding instruction program, or to take the place of an equine instructor.