One of my earliest memories is of learning to ride a bike. I remember the fear, exhilaration, and hyper-awareness, along with the tension in my body and how my breath became both more rapid and shorter. I was outside of my comfort zone and challenging myself to grow. It was also a blast!
Tom Wootton is CEO of Bipolar Advantage. Along with experts in complementary fields, including doctors teaching the next generation of therapists, their mission is to help people with mental conditions shift their thinking and behavior so that they can lead extraordinary lives. Tom is the author of three books: The Bipolar Advantage, The Depression Advantage, and Bipolar In Order: Looking At Depression, Mania, Hallucination, And Delusion From The Other Side.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
My father had a wisdom common with most dads. He didn’t push me down a steep hill and hope I survived; he ran along next to me making sure I was not too far outside of my comfort zone as to be incapable of handling it. He taught me one of the most important lessons that day about what it is to be human. We need to challenge ourselves to grow, while at the same time making sure we don’t go too far outside of our comfort zone.
The thrill of learning something new and challenging myself to grow has been a constant companion ever since my first bike ride. On too many occasions, I took on challenges far outside of my comfort zone and was either debilitated by the fear and lack of skills, or took risks that caused more harm than the potential reward from succeeding.
I learned an even more important lesson when I was 28 years old. I ran a retirement home and learned that the ones who stopped challenging themselves were the ones who died the earliest. Those who continued to step outside their comfort zone were the ones who thrived. I was fortunate to see first hand that growth is what keeps us alive.
Humanity is defined by our need to learn and grow and our wisdom to make the right decisions about how far to go in challenging our limits. It is also defined by continuing to face challenges until our last breath. To succeed at being human, we need to balance our need to step outside of our comfort zone with staying close enough to survive.
Most of us have had a similar experience in learning to ride a bike or in learning something new for the first time. We had someone who cared about us helping us to be safe while encouraging us to take a risk. We were outside of our comfort zone and experiencing fear, exhilaration, tension, and the other feelings that come with facing a challenge.
Our fathers could not imagine us riding our bikes on a cyclocross course on the same day as our first ride. They hope that we will develop skills and practice them on safer ground before embarking on such foolish ventures. But, our judgment is not well developed and we don’t yet understand the risks involved when making decisions.
Most of us have gone too far and found ourselves at a point beyond our ability, many of us more times than we can count. We have taken risks that were too dangerous for our current skills and have pushed the limits of safety. While we often get away with such behaviors, we sometimes pay the price for getting too far outside of our comfort zone.
Sometimes, when we get way outside of our comfort zone, we need intervention to heal the injuries that we cause. Depending on how dangerous the behavior and the extent of the injuries, that intervention can be major. We can end up in the hospital or worse. Some behaviors can even end in our death and injury or death for those around us.
One way to understand the power of the idea is to break it into four zones: way outside, not so far out, a little out, and finally, inside of our comfort zone. This model helps us to see the relationship between how far outside the comfort zone we can go and what the risk of intervention is at each level. We can use this model to help us to understand the importance of managing the distance we go from the comfort zone before choosing an intervention.
We are in great danger when we find ourselves way outside of the comfort zone. The likelihood of needing major intervention is very high. For our safety, and for the safety of others, we should avoid this danger zone at all costs.
If we learn to become more aware of our comfort zone and our relation to it, we can begin to catch ourselves before we get so far outside of it. While still in need of intervention , we can avoid the greatest risks and the consequent major intervention necessary to repair our injuries. While definitely preferable to being way outside of our comfort zone, this “not so far out” zone is still in the danger zone and should be avoided.
The sweet spot is when we are just a little outside of our comfort zone. When we become keenly aware of the line that separates our comfort zone from the growth zone, we can learn to go a little out and then back in again. As we practice crossing the line in both directions, we grow in both understanding and skills. We may not want to live on the edge all of the time, but need to cross the line at least some of the time to grow. Finding the sweet spot is finding our humanity.
The current mainstream belief about depression, mania, hallucinations, and delusion is that the more intense if is, the further outside of our comfort zone it takes us. This makes perfect sense and is proven by our experience. The higher our mania or deeper our depression, the greater intervention is needed to bring us back into our comfort zone.
High mania, deep depression, intense hallucinations, and strong delusions are a great danger. It takes major intervention to suppress the experience and bring us back to “normal.” This major intervention often includes hospitalization with massive medications in an effort to stop the symptoms.
If we can learn to recognize our condition earlier, we might be able to get back to “normal” without such a major intervention. We might just need to talk with our therapist, adjust medication, or some other treatment that keeps us in control. While still in danger, we can take steps that bring us back to “normal” that are less intrusive. This has the benefit of creating less trauma as well as having less negative side effects.
It is also believed, and with good reason, that even elevated or low energy states are a danger and in need of intervention. Too often, such lessor states have spiraled out of control and rapidly escalated into high mania or deep depression. Although the intervention may be more subtle, we nonetheless need to rein in the state before it gets out of control.
The reality is that our behavior is what makes us need intervention. While it is understandable that people link state to behavior, it is important to understand that the behaviors are the issue. Some people attempt suicide or exhibit extreme behavior when in extremes states. Other people do the same at lessor states. If we are going to understand how to use the concept of comfort zone, we need to change our beliefs to see behavior as the issue.
Suicide is obviously in need of major intervention. To get so far outside of our comfort zone as to think that the only way back is to kill oneself is incredibly dangerous. Some say that 40% of all people with bipolar or depression attempt suicide at some point. Yet, there are many other behaviors that are just as dangerous with the added risk that other people are also at risk. Out of control mania can include behaviors that put everyone at risk. While forcing someone into treatment can be seriously abused, there is no doubt that some behaviors need to be stopped at all cost.
If we can catch ourselves or others earlier, there is a chance that such extreme measures are not necessary. While it is true that many people rapidly go from “normal” behaviors to out of control, most escalate slowly enough that a lessor intervention may be all that is needed.
If we can learn to be more aware of our behaviors, we can use more subtle tools to bring ourselves back to “normal.” It may only take a couple of days off or a change in sleep to bring us back. Catching ourselves earlier is the key to getting bipolar in control.
A more productive way to consider our comfort zone is to look at the relationship between our state, the behaviors associated with it, and the intervention needed to return to “normal.” By doing so, we can more clearly see the assumptions that color our beliefs. Seeing how the state is separate from the behavior and how the intervention is based on behavior helps us to put mania, depression, hallucinations, and delusions in a context that can lead to growth.
Nonetheless, even with the inclusion of behavior, there is still a flaw in the way that the mainstream sees it. Any state outside of the comfort zone is seen as in need of intervention. As compared to the earlier chart about comfort zones for “normal” people, there is something critical missing: growth.
As stated earlier, the mainstream assumption is that elevated or low energy states are the precursor to high mania and depression. Allowing them at all is thought to risk rapid escalation to extreme states. It is considered dangerous to allow any states outside of the comfort zone no matter how narrowly defined that zone becomes.
Many, if not most, people have learned that they can function in the slightly elevated or low energy states once they develop the skills and use the tools that help them to keep the condition from escalating out of control. It takes hard work and tremendous insight to make sure that we are not deluding ourselves into thinking everything is fine when it is not, but with the help of others we can learn to recognize that we have gone just over the line to the part outside of our comfort zone where growth takes place.
As growth is a necessary requirement to be alive, it is advantageous to make the effort to occasionally take ourselves into the growth area outside of our comfort zone. The process, as will be described in detail later, is to take ourselves slightly into the growth area and back into the comfort zone. Repeated practice helps us to become comfortable and leads to much greater awareness of exactly where the line is that we cross. By making sure that we do not go too far over the line, we develop the skills and awareness to do it safely.
We also become more functional in the growth zone over time. That ability to function, along with the feedback from our friends, family, and professional supporters, helps us to lesson the danger of going too far and finding ourselves in the danger zone. As we experience such growth, we feel more human and find reason to live in contrast to the boredom associated with trying to diminish our lives our of fear that we cannot handle it.
Eventually, we find that elevated and low energy states have become part of our comfort zone. The part that may take you too far outside of your comfort zone for now is that it then becomes possible to start functioning in the hypo manic or slightly depressed states that once had us acting in extravagant ways. I will be covering that in detail later, so for now just understand that as we step slightly outside of our comfort zone, we have the opportunity to grow and our range expands as we do.
This might end up being the first chapter of my new book. It is tentatively titled From Bipolar Disorder To Bipolar In Order and is based on my current talks. Your feedback will help a lot to refine the message so it makes the most sense. Please let me know what you think it means and how you think it could better make the points. I am open to changing the graphics, changing the text on the graphics, changing the text everywhere, etc.