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Work Life: How To Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

This September, we’ve been encouraging you to get On Top Of Your World all month long. Whether that’s by paring back your beauty stash to streamline your morning routine or kickstarting your savings with our top money tips. Now, we’re entering the world of work with a little advice from Farrah Storr – Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan on how to embrace your discomfort zone…

By now you’ll know what adrenaline is and when it strikes. It’s a natural feeling, built into human nature to help us thrive in difficult situations. It’s what makes us run away when we hear loud, uncomfortable noises. You know, like the screech of peripheral family turning up outside your house at Christmas (didn’t they get the memo about never being welcome after Uncle Andy fell into that four- hour wormhole talking about his redundancy and the boss you all suspected he would in fact murder before New Year?) – that, or the Footlocker sale starting. The problem is it’s not the best feeling in the world.

Some people complain of dizziness. Others feel sick. Me? I need the toilet. Non- stop.

But for some people it debilitates them altogether. They can’t move. They freeze. Their heads are like slot machines emptying of all sense and information. It’s the moment when an adrenaline rush tips over into a panic attack. And the window in which this can happen is very small and very subtle. It can strike anyone, at any time. And when it’s happened once, the likelihood of it happening again is high. Some people call this stage fright. I call it ‘discomfort paralysis’. Because that’s what it is – a paralysis. A moment of such intense frustration and sensory breakdown that it can scar people for years. Sometimes forever.

An example: Daniel Day- Lewis, arguably one of the most fêted actors of his generation; a three- time Oscar winner; a man who is so stupidly talented that he can renounce acting altogether, run off to retrain as a Florentine cobbler (true story) and then come back and win the Best Actor Oscar for his role in In Cold Blood. But in 1989 he was performing as Hamlet on stage at the London National Theatre when, halfway through the production, he froze, walked off the stage and never returned. And that’s no understatement. He found the act of performing in front of a live audience so overwhelming that he has never done theatre since. He calls the aftermath of that night so ‘dreadful’ that he upped sticks and moved to rural Ireland. He had suffered from ‘discomfort paralysis’.

Actor Stephen Fry went one step further to avoid the excruciating pain of performing in a play in front of an audience, leaving the UK entirely so as not to suffer from ‘discomfort paralysis’. (He has since, rather eloquently, described stage fright as akin to the audience seeing ‘the shrivelled penis inside your head’.) Actor Laurence Olivier suffered from intermittent bouts throughout his fifties. (It can strike at any point in your life, by the way, so even if you’re okay with it now, there’s no guarantee that’s going to last. Sorry.) Grammy award- winning singer- songwriter Carly Simon took six years off from live performing because she became so overwhelmed and uncomfortable. The list of those who, at one point in their career suffered from ‘discomfort paralysis’ is as long as it is varied: Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, one of the world’s richest men Warren Buffett, opera singer Renée Fleming, actress Bette Midler, singer Adele. And yet each one has gone on to become a leading light in their professional field. So, what is their secret? To understand that, you first have to understand why they freaked out in the first place.

Let’s say you’re about to give a talk. Maybe you’ve been chosen to give a short speech at a friend’s wedding. Or the boss has asked you to deliver a few well- wishing words to a departing colleague from your team. Simple enough requests. There is, on the surface, no imminent sense of danger. So why, then, do you feel sick? Why do you feel the ‘freeze’ coursing through your body at the very moment you’re about to speak?

As I’ve mentioned before, your body, when put under stress, goes into flight or fight mode. Most of us recognise why this is: you either need to hightail the hell out of there when things get scary (flight), or you need to stick around and put up a fight. But there’s a third response that doesn’t get nearly as much attention and which we have almost all felt: freezing.

Freezing and ‘discomfort paralysis’ go hand in hand. It’s that incapacitating feeling when everything – thoughts, feelings, normal human utterances – are catapulted out of the window. You are left rooted to the spot, unable to even make single eye twitches or small guttural sounds. It seems like an eternity (it rarely is – a few seconds at most) but it can derail everything. You have probably seen a performer suffer from discomfort paralysis on stage. Their eyes enlarge, their mouth hangs open and they stand straight and rigid as a meerkat. It’s as painful to watch as it is to endure. And it’s the fastest route to losing the confidence of everyone who witnesses it.

Here’s the abridged version of what happens: that moment before you decided to fight or flee you freeze for a few milliseconds to assess the situation before making your next move. Your eyes open a little wider as you take in all the information around you, your mouth opens as you prepare to scream or shout, and you stand there, seemingly unable to move as you conserve energy for your next action.

This all sounds perfectly sensible, a smart evolutionary response to a fearful situation. But sometimes those milliseconds extend into seconds, then a few more seconds, and, before you know it, you’re stranded, stuck in ‘discomfort paralysis’ from which it is very difficult to return.

Why does this happen? Well, it’s thought that, without any real imminent danger in modern life (no wild cats or cave bears batting down our mud huts) we instead started to obsess about outcomes and fret about things we think might be dangerous. We forecast fear, so to speak, and in doing that we essentially juice up our amygdala, the bit of our brain that deals with fear and anticipation. And that’s when the trouble starts. Is there a way to short- circuit this response? Is it even within our conscious power to escape from discomfort paralysis? And if so, how quickly can we make it work for us?

Most of us have taken exams at some point in our lives. I grew up at a time when exams meant everything. It didn’t matter if you had performed well all year – if you didn’t get the grade at exam time, then you were done. It was over. The academic group you would be in, which college you would go to and the university you would set sail for were all determined by how well you performed under examination conditions. And that was tough. While the curriculum and methods for testing students have changed since my day, exams are still part of everyone’s education. And I tend to think that’s right. In life you’re always going to come up against stressful, deeply uncomfortable situations where you have only a short amount of time in which to impress. Getting a handle on how you do this at as early an age as possible is crucial.

The best place to see the acutely different reactions to adrenaline are outside an exam hall. You will notice the different poses. Some students will be hunched, taking deep gulps of air while looking skywards in a sort of trembling supplication to the exam gods. Others, meanwhile, will have chests puffed, arms stretched and hips thrust forward as though about to charge into coital battle. Make no mistake, both sets of students are in the grip of adrenaline. It’s just that the grip is slightly different for each. The first set – the ones who look as though they are about to face the guillotine – are perceiving the exam as a threat, and in this state a whole series of dreadful outcomes are running through their minds: What if I fail? What ifdon’t have enough time to complete everything? What if I get a question on the one thing I didn’t prep for? (Sound familiar? That was me for pretty much all my student life.) The other set of students, however, see the exam as a challenge. They feel ‘pumped’, scared, yes, but also motivated to get on with the whole thing. They are in the grip of what researchers call a ‘challenge state’: the hormones that activate the brain’s reward centre suppress fear. Seriously, they actively dampen it down. This means you are excited and invigorated, as opposed to feeling as though you’re about to expurgate your entire insides. And here’s what else happens: your blood vessels dilate, along with your lungs, which means you’re getting more oxygen into your bloodstream. That means you can make sharper decisions, in less time. In other words, you are on metaphorical fire, primed to tackle whatever challenge is in front of you.

Now I know what you’re thinking: but this is genetic, surely? Some people are able to see stressful situations as a challenge while others, okay, most of us, crumble. Of course, there are some out there who are genetically predisposed to react well under stressful conditions. As for the rest of us, we can learn it. We can actually learn how to prime ourselves better for those adrenaline- fuelled situations.

To read more from The Discomfort Zone get your copy here.

*Image by Sarah Brick.