Mariah Loftin is a senior clinical therapist for young adults at Open Sky. Skillfully blending her background as a psychotherapist, behaviorist, and art therapist, she helps students launch into young adulthood and independence by building confidence, grit, and resilience outside of their comfort zones.
The term comfort zone comes from the concept of the temperature range where our bodies are physically most comfortable. We as humans don’t particularly like to be too hot or too cold, so the comfort zone for our bodies is around 67 to 78 degrees, depending on the season. Psychologically, comfort zone refers to the places and situations where we operate and interact with the most ease and predictability. When we are in our comfort zone, we feel secure and in control of environments and experience lower levels of anxiety and stress.
The ability to take risks by stepping outside of our comfort zones is central to growth, but we’re often afraid to take those first steps. There’s this relationship with fear that is notable because naturally, our systems don’t want to be stressed. We want to stay in what feels safe and familiar.
However, if we stay in that place of predictability, life is not going to be particularly rich. We’re not going to be able to build up the ability to cope when things don’t go our way. In life, there will be curveballs that are thrown at us: having our hearts broken, being fired from a job, failing a test. Being able to step into those curveballs as well as how we step into them is fundamental. Taking risks means we learn how to develop grit and draw upon the most resilient parts of ourselves. It’s through stepping outside our comfort zones that we find richness in challenges, embrace and create change in our lives, and experience success.
In the world of psychology, there’s a long-standing discussion on the relationship between biology and environment. Is the ability to tolerate discomfort a product of nature or nurture? The answer is yes. Both. We all come into the world with particular nervous systems. Those nervous systems can be wired in different ways, which means one person might be more resilient, while another might find certain stressors more difficult to deal with. That’s the nature of things.
Then there’s nurture, which is how we’re taught and encouraged to deal with whatever stressors come at us. Those lessons and messages come from parents, teachers, peers, religious communities, and everything else that’s part of our environments. When it comes to resilience, we can be wired for it, but most importantly, we can learn it. Through neuroplasticity, we can literally change and adapt the way our brains work as a result of experience.
Young adulthood is an exercise in getting outside of one’s comfort zone. This can be both a triumph and a struggle. In our culture many parents feel an intense pressure to be perfect and create the perfect nest for their children. As a result, we’re seeing a lot of kids who are questioning why they would want to leave such a comfortable space. The other factor is that parents are so attuned to their children that for young adults, entering a world where people don’t know them yet is intimidating. They’re parents think they’re amazing, which they are, and the world doesn’t know that yet. Young adults have to move beyond that comfort zone and be brave as they step out of the realm of their parents and into things like a new classroom, job, or friend group.
Wilderness is a wonderful place for young people to explore the edges of their comfort zones because the trees, flowers, and mountains do not judge. There’s space for students to look around, be vulnerable, and try and learn new things. Wilderness also creates a level of community that is profound.
For example, I had a group of students who decided to embark on a hike up a peak. They were all from cities and had no prior outdoors experience. The endeavor presented many new, uncomfortable challenges for them. They had to gain elevation. They had to search for the right footing. They had to ask each other to pause so someone could catch their breath. They had to believe that they could make it. Eventually, they got to the top of the peak. Once there, they shouted at the top of their lungs different affirmations they were feeling about themselves. Each one of them had gained a new level of confidence.
Another thing we teach in wilderness is bow drilling, or how to make fire with sticks. It is a challenging task, ones that requires students to focus, pay attention to details, ask for help, and push through self-doubt. Once a student leaves Open Sky, they may not bow drill again, but they will remember using coping skills when they doubted themselves, seeking support when they needed it, bouncing back in the face of failure, and building confidence by completing a difficult task.
Many people bump up against their comfort zone when faced with emotional challenges, such as talking about feelings and allowing others to see their vulnerability. I worked with one student whose family chose Open Sky because they knew they needed to find new ways of relating to each other. They were not comfortable talking about things as a family and processed their emotions through arguments and tension. At Open Sky they were able to slow down and interact with each other in new ways, rather than being stuck in reactionary exchanges. At the culmination of their experience here, they were sitting together in person and the father was crying, which was not a typical exchange for them. The rest of the family witnessed, listened, and held space for him and each other. It was also a profound moment in which the father modelled to his family both what stepping outside the comfort looks like and why it’s important for growth and change.
Indeed, asking for help is outside of many people’s comfort zones, and talking about how you feel can be one of the bravest things you do. My encouragement for anybody considering Open Sky is to simply be honest with yourself. Really look at what’s going on in your and your family’s lives, make a plan, and accept support where you need it. Stepping outside the comfort zone is where the magic begins.