Improve Your Life By Mary Jaksch If you want to overcome a life challenge, the following post will help you follow through. Whether you want to change how you are, change how you live, or want to learn a new skill, the process of change is strangely similar. All self development – whether it’s getting fitter, or learning new skills – follows the same three principles: comfort, stretch, and stress. This theory was developed by two psychologists, Andy Ryan and Dawna Markova. Comfort is the realm of our ingrained habits. Stress happens when the challenge is so great that we feel overwhelmed. Stretch is the zone in which true change happens. I experience these three principles of development each time I go to a yoga class. If I stay in the comfort zone, my body remains as it is, and I don’t develop flexibility, strength, and balance. If I force my stretches, I am apt to sustain injuries. It is in the mid range where I stretch further than is comfortable, that sustained change happens. The comfort zone has its own importance. For example, it’s important to hold a stretch and relax into it until it feels comfortable. Only then should one enter the stretch zone once more in order to lengthen muscles and ligaments. The optimal way of development is by alternating between comfort and stretch, whilst avoiding stress. The stretch zone can feel uncomfortable because the new skills or behaviors feel strange and awkward. Dawna Markova says:Try lacing your hands together. You habitually do it one way. Now try doing it with the other thumb on top. Feels awkward, doesn’t it? That’s the valuable moment we call confusion, when we fuse the old with the new. After the phase of confusion, the brain begins organizing the new input, creating new pathways in the brain if the process is repeated often enough. This is an unusual take on confusion! But it is in line with the original meaning, as ‘confusion’ means ‘binding together’. It means that it is necessary for the habitual and the new to fuse, in order for a new habit to form. This reminds me of the transformation of an ordinary caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. I describe this transformation in my article Threshold as follows: When the time for transformation has come, a larva wraps itself in a cocoon and becomes a chrysalis. Just imagine how that might feel! Suddenly the larva is constricted, can’t move anymore and the light darkens. Then a disintegration begins. Some cells die, others revert to an undifferentiated state, some cluster together as ‘imaginal discs’ that carry a genetic blueprint for new structures. If you compare a caterpillar to a butterfly they seem worlds apart and yet one transforms into the other. This process is an example of con-fusion. And it’s exactly how the stretch zone works: the old fuses with the new to establish growth. The stretch zone has important implications for brain health. In her book “This Year I Will…”, Andy Ryan says: Getting into the stretch zone is good for you. It helps keep your brain healthy. It turns out that unless we continue to learn new things, which challenges our brains to create new pathways, they literally begin to atrophy, which may result in dementia, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Continuously stretching ourselves will even help us lose weight, according to one study. Researchers who asked folks to do something different every day – listen to a new radio station, for instance – found that they lost and kept off weight. No one is sure why, but scientists speculate that getting out of routines makes us more aware in general. Which of the three zones of development do you tend to inhabit? • Do your prize comfort? Resist change? If so, you maybe someone who lives mostly in the comfort zone. • Do you love learning and growing? Then you maybe spend most of your time in the stretch zone. • If you often feel stressed and overwhelmed, you may be inhabiting the stress zone. All three zones have their place in life. The comfort zone is the phase of hibernation. In winter no shoots can be seen above the ground, but beneath the earth root are growing. The shoots are getting ready to pierce the soil and taste the sunlight. This phase is common in creative endeavors. It’s the stillness and seeming dullness that we can experience just before a brain wave. We need to inhabit the stress zone when we’re faced with new situation that has to be mastered in a hurry. The stretch zone is the zone of creativity and innovation. Dawna Markova said something very interesting about it: You cannot have innovation, unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder. This means that in order to come through confusion into growth, we need to embrace not-knowing. We need to develop a tolerance for ambiguity. This ‘not knowing’ allows us to find something new in our life and grow in a way we couldn’t previously imagine.