Why our nerves help push us outside our comfort zone

Aine talks about our fight or flight response and how we can learn from it to challenge ourselves

Written by Aine Ahern


Put the club down!

I’m a survivor. I always have been, and I always will be. But lately I asked myself whether it was possible that I could be ‘just’ surviving and not in fact living? You’d like to think surviving and living go hand in hand, but funnily enough, I think there’s actually a pretty big difference! You see, back in our caveman days it was vital that we listened to our brains because if we didn’t, we simply wouldn’t be left with any! Whether we were under attack from a faraway tribe, or hunted by a wild animal, survival was ingrained in us and in our DNA. When we weren’t out hunting for dinner, we were being served as it. Although it was far from hunters we were raised, there’s still an unchanged part of our DNA that heavily supports those survival instincts. The result? Well, unlike our ancestors, I think we are far from rocking it!

Our brain has one job which is to keep us alive. As witty as you think that little guy is, it really has zero sense of humour. In fact, your brain doesn’t consider things funny, at all. All that hype about your brain wanting you to be happy? Bullshit! All it wants to see is you surviving, because to it, that’s what will make you happy! So you could be completely miserable but as long as you’re in survival mode, the brain considers it to be doing its job.

Survival mode

So what is survival mode and why do we need it? Survival mode is a process (or endless list) that our brain has been keeping file of since the day it could process information. It’s the reason why we look left and right before we cross a road, why we blow on our piping hot food before consuming it, the reason why (some of us) haven’t been punched in the face from saying what we really feel, and ultimately, it’s the reason we survive.

Fight or flight

Everyone has a survival guide but because our brains can’t process the severity of potential risks, it responds the same way to a great white shark as it does to delivering a public speech. Now reading that sentence again it sounds ridiculous, but to your brain, each potential threat is considered a sink or swim moment, regardless of how small it is. So how do we react when we see a Great White Shark swimming towards us? Well if your brain is any way clued in, I’m hoping it tells you to get the f**k out of there and avoid all Jaws films for at least 9 years! In fact, IndeFINitely! Rational? Absolutely! On the other hand, your boss at work has asked you to deliver a speech to the entire company. How do you respond? Well you say things like “Oh God I can’t, I would literally die!” or “I could never do that.” Just like Alexa or google ads, your brain is listening to every word while responding to it internally. So as soon as you uttered “die” or “can’t” flashing red alarm bells started booming.

In these situations, our bodies let us know we’re experiencing a challenge. You can either interpret this as “Oh, this feels bad. My tummy feels weird, my heart is racing – I gotta get out of here” or you can think “Oh this isn’t a good feeling, but I think I will get through it.”

Your heart racing, a sick feeling in your stomach, shortness of breath are our brain and body’s way of signing that we need to figure out a way to handle the situation. Sometimes the way our body feels might make it seem like the challenge is something bigger than it actually is, so it’s important to think about how you can handle the situation and your strategy for the challenging situation.

Going outside our comfort zones

Sure, giving that speech would have initially taken you outside your comfort zone. A comfort zone can be a beautiful place by making you feel safe but do you know what can make you feel euphoric? Doing something you thought you couldn’t. The good kind of fear. Adrenalin. That feeling you get when you jump out of a plane, from giving a speech, from scoring a try that you would have normally passed off. That heart pumping, knees trembling, palms sweating type of feeling. So in theory, yes comfort zones can be nice, but what’s more exciting than feeling really alive?.

So as I started to really delve into the things I had on my list I asked myself how do I change the way I feel about things? Then it came to me. I’m a great woman for talking myself into things, but I’m even better at talking myself out. That’s exactly what I did. I started trying to trick my brain. So when something that I wasn’t overly sure about came up in my brain, I may have initially thought “fuck”, but then I verbally said “fuckk it, what’s the worst that can happen?” So now, when you feel your knees shaking, your heart racing and your brain freaking out, you can say to yourself “This is going to be a challenge – so how do I defeat this shark?” and see it as a chance to learn and do something exciting.

So although you may be surviving on a daily basis, ask yourself today are you really living? If the answer is no, why not give it a go? We reassess our life all the time, why not reassess our comfort zones? Our ancestors needed to be fearful, but we don’t. We aren’t faced with the same extremes and yet, our brains haven’t quite caught up just yet. So why wait for our brains to catch up when we can push ourselves outside our comfort zones and feel the thrill of really living.

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