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Discomfort can be Your Friend: Embracing the Stretch Zone for Neurodiversity and Beyond

Our brains are like amazing security guards – constantly scanning for threats and keeping us safe. This built-in protection system, however, can sometimes hold us back. It prioritises the familiar, the comfortable, which is why venturing into new territory can feel scary. But for growth, we need to embrace this "stretch zone" – the space beyond our comfort zone where we learn and develop.

Evidence for the Brain's Protective Wiring:

The amygdala: This part of the brain acts as our fear centre. When it perceives a threat (real or perceived), it triggers the fight-or-flight response, urging us to avoid the situation. This is a helpful survival mechanism, but it can also prevent us from trying new things.

The basal ganglia: This region is responsible for habit formation. It craves predictability and routine, making the familiar feel safe and the unknown feel risky.

The Power of Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis:

The good news? Our brains are more adaptable than we might think. Neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to change and reorganise itself throughout life, offers a powerful tool for growth. When we step outside our comfort zones and challenge ourselves, we create new neural pathways and strengthen existing ones. This can lead to improved cognitive skills, better emotional regulation, and even the creation of new brain cells through a process called neurogenesis. Studies have shown that neurogenesis is particularly active in the hippocampus, a region crucial for learning and memory. While research on neurogenesis in adults is ongoing, the potential for our brains to continue growing and adapting throughout life is a powerful motivator.

Little and Often: Building Your Growth Muscle

Here's the key for neurodiverse individuals and everyone else: while the stretch zone is crucial for growth, it's a marathon, not a sprint. Just like building muscle at the gym, it is little and often that leads to lasting change. Trying to tackle a monumental challenge right off the bat can be overwhelming and counterproductive. Instead, focus on incorporating small, manageable challenges into your routine. This could be anything from taking a new class one night a week to trying a new recipe on the weekend.

Stepping Outside Our Comfort Zone for Growth and Flow:

Despite our brain's protective tendencies, growth requires stepping outside our comfort zone. As Carol Dweck, a psychologist known for her work on mindsets, famously stated, "In a growth mindset, challenges are extended opportunities to learn." Embracing the "stretch zone" allows us to:

Develop new skills: When we gently encourage ourselves to try something new, we learn and grow. This could be anything from taking a new class to starting a creative project.

Increase resilience: Stepping outside our comfort zone builds our ability to cope with challenges and bounce back from setbacks.

Boost self-confidence: Overcoming challenges builds self-belief and empowers us to take on more in the future.

• Enter a state of flow: The stretch zone is also where we're most likely to experience flow. Flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes a state of complete absorption in an activity, characterised by energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process. In flow, our skills are challenged but not overwhelmed, and we lose track of time and self-consciousness.

How we look at things changes our perception:

The key to embracing the stretch zone lies not just in the activity itself, but also in the lens we choose to view it through. Forget toxic positivity – growth is undeniably hard and can be scary. But it's important to recognise that it can also be exciting, fulfilling, and even lead to flow. It's like choosing which glasses to wear:

• Glasses of Dread: These magnify the difficulty and potential for failure, making the stretch zone appear overwhelming and best avoided.

• Glasses of Growth: These acknowledge the challenge but also highlight the learning opportunities and potential for positive outcomes.

Shifting Your Growth Zone Perception:

By choosing the goggles of growth, we can transform the stretch zone from a scary unknown into an exciting adventure with the potential for immense satisfaction. It's about acknowledging the discomfort while simultaneously recognising the potential for reward.

Being Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable:

The key is to embrace the stretch zone in short bursts, like a workout. We wouldn't expect to run a marathon on day one, and we shouldn't expect to live permanently outside our comfort zone. We need that "safety zone," that space of comfort and familiarity, to recharge and de-stress. This is where self-compassion comes in.

As Jannice Jones says, "Get comfortable with being uncomfortable!" By acknowledging the discomfort and approaching growth with self-compassion, we can navigate the stretch zone without getting overwhelmed.

So, take a deep breath, choose your growth goggles, and step outside your comfort zone. Your brain may be wired for protection, but it's also wired for learning and growth. With a little self-compassion and a willingness to be uncomfortable, you can use its amazing power to unlock the potential for flow and become the best version of yourself.

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