The Discomfort Zone

When you’re stuck in an uncomfortable or difficult situation, how can you best get through it without losing your cool?

Get me out!

What happens to you when you’re stuck in a situation that is difficult, uncomfortable, or even painful?

You might be stuck with in a place, a conversation, or other situation that for whatever reason, you can’t gracefully exit. And it feels like nails on a chalkboard.

What’s your automatic response? Do you tend to complain to yourself, think about how painful it is, or wish how much you were someplace else? Do you rack your brain for an impossible escape plan, only to realize nothing will work?

For many of us, the reactions we have to discomfort are not only unhelpful, but can actually make the discomfort worse.

What’s the better solution?

First, let’s look at what’s happening when we’re stuck in discomfort.

Striving for safety and comfort

No one likes discomfort or distress. Given the choice between easy and hard, comfort and pain, who wouldn’t choose ease and comfort? That’s not because we’re wimps, it’s because our brains are primed to seek safety and comfort and avoid pain and distress.

It makes sense. Our brains, at their most primitive level, exist to keep us safe from danger. If we don’t feel safe, then our bodies produce cortisol and adrenaline to put our survival instinct into action. These hormones activate our limbic region, home of the fight-flight-freeze response.

To our brains, feelings like discomfort or aversion are a sign that something is amiss. With these feelings, our brains are alerted to a potential threat, and our survival instincts kick in.

This is when we might swear or murmur under our breath (i.e., fight). We might try to concoct an implausible escape plan (i.e., flight). Or we might shut down like a deer in headlights (i.e., freeze).

But this kind of rumination can only heighten our original stress and discomfort.

The power of acceptance

What’s another way to respond? What can we do to ease our distress and discomfort in the situation?

In a word: acceptance. This may sound surprising, but research has proven that accepting discomfort, with commitment to a different response, is an extremely effective method for increasing one’s tolerance.

A study from the National University of Ireland proved this power of acceptance. Participants in the study were asked to deliver shocks to themselves, with different groups receiving different instructions relating either to accepting the pain or distracting themselves from it.

The acceptance group was given certain tasks before being asked to self-administer the shocks. They were asked to repeat the phrase “I cannot walk” while walking around the room. This gave them the experience of having a thought but disconnecting from it by taking an opposite action.

They were also asked to imagine themselves crossing a muddy swamp and to pay attention to their unpleasant thoughts and feelings even as they imagined crossing the swamp.

While everyone was encouraged to continue with the shocks, only the acceptance group was asked to do so regardless of their thoughts about the shocks.

In the end, the control group with no strategy withstood 2 shocks, the group with the distraction strategy withstood 4 shocks, while the group with the acceptance strategy withstood a full 8 shocks – twice as many as those that simply distracted themselves!

Accepting discomfort may not be an instinctive strategy, but it is the most powerful one.

Tips for the acceptance strategy

What is causing you discomfort these days? What is your muddy swamp? Assuming you can’t transform it, try the acceptance strategy.

The next time you’re in a painful or uncomfortable situation:

  1. Notice your feelings and label them: pain, discomfort, nervousness, anxiety, etc.
  2. Take some slow, deep breaths and relax the tension in the body. This signals to your nervous system that you’re safe and do not need activate your fight-flight-freeze response.
  3. Tell yourself that even though the situation is difficult and you are uncomfortable, you are OK, and it will pass.

While it may feel against your instinct at first, the more you practice acceptance, the easier and more natural it will become.

Try it out, and let me know how it goes. Post your comments below, or share this post with a friend who’s entering the discomfort zone.

Photo by Ryan McGuire at www.gratisography.com. 

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