When we are approaching something unfamiliar, however certain we may be that the change is good for us, we often feel a hesitancy to move forward. Whether you are about to start a new exercise regime, make a phone call you have been putting off, or head out for your first day on a new job, that churning feeling in your gut can stop you in your tracks. You can probably remember times when that discomfort kept you from taking action, even when you consciously wanted to make the change. We can move into the uncharted territory with greater confidence and grace by understanding the mechanisms at play behind the discomfort we feel when approaching the unfamiliar. There are two main neurophysiological functions at the root of those butterflies in our stomachs when we’re trying something new. The first mechanism is cortisol release, the stress hormone that modulates the “fight-flight” response. This response, as I’ve discussed in previous podcasts, is a survival function that evolved to help alert us to potential dangers threatening our existence. The response helped our ancestors avoid extinction by alerting them to the dangerous beasts that lurked in the dark corners of the jungle. When you feel that urge to turn back, you can override your impulses simply by reminding yourself that the anxiety you feel is your brain’s way of trying to keep you safe. Your brain can not tell the difference between a crouching tiger in the field and a group of new faces at a party; to your brain, unfamiliar territory is unfamiliar territory, and surprises can lurk everywhere. It is up to us to use our minds to soothe the unconscious reactions of our old brain and remind ourselves that new does not necessarily mean dangerous; unfamiliar does not automatically equal unsafe. The other neurochemical reaction at play when we face the unfamiliar involves changes in the transmission of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. It is released when we experience something pleasurable and comforting; we get a little boost of dopamine as a reward for doing something that feels good. Dopamine also functions in anticipation of an expected response; that is, we are rewarded for engaging in usual behavior. When there is a fit between what we are expected to do and what we actually do, dopamine levels remain steady and consistent. When we make a change from the predictable, however, there can be no dopamine reward for doing what was expected. This disruption in the dopamine release results in a sense of uneasiness in the body. So, when you shuffle out of bed in your slippers and settle down for a big pancake breakfast, as you have for so many Sunday mornings in the past, you get a dopamine reward for doing what’s expected. By the same token, when Sunday morning finds you lacing up your sneakers for your early a.m. run, you may feel sense of uneasiness or discomfort. Although you consciously know you’re making a good decision, the choice to run instead of hunkering down with your coffee and the paper just doesn’t feel so good. Certainly not at first, anyway. This uncomfortable feeling when approaching the new behavior is the result of dopamine temporarily switching off. That inhibition of dopamine transmission can stop us from moving forward if we interpret the discomfort we feel as a message that the new or unfamiliar behavior is risky or wrong. Neuroscientists refer to this somatic signal as the “Oh, Shit!” response. It is the brain’s response to recognizing that it’s not going to get what it’s accustomed to receiving. Like the child who learns that they have homework for the weekend (when expecting none), and temporarily panics until the teacher tells them that the homework is to play outside, the brain seizes up when it does not yet know what it may receive. The happiest child waits to hear what the homework will be. The most anxious kid decides immediately that their weekend will be ruined by long division and a book report. We can use our mind to create distance between the discomfort of the automatic somatic reaction and the story of that discomfort. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the sense of uneasiness we feel, and move beyond it. We can learn to tolerate the sensation of discomfort and understand it as what it is; a neurochemical reaction in our brain designed to keep us safely ensconced in the familiar. We need not attach meaning to the feelings, assuming discomfort is bad or fearing danger where there is none. We can remember that often, safety equals stagnation, and that we must step out of our comfort zone in order to grow and evolve. It is helpful, when feeling the hesitation that comes with new behavior, to remind ourselves that the anxiety or discomfort we feel is growth-in-action. With change comes new learning. In doing new things, we can help our brains create new neural pathways until, in time, the new behavior becomes the one that is rewarded, and the thing that feels good.
Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone: Overriding the "Oh,Shit!" Response
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By Dr. Marla Cohen • 04/06/2013 02:23 PM