A few years ago, I made a vow to get out of my comfort zone. I was in my late 60s and had been observing a close friend so ensconced in her routine that if anything went slightly awry she became completely undone.

When the TV remote misbehaved she’d crumple emotionally and tell me, “Death will be a relief from all this.”

When her computer had its own mind, she’d scream at it, turning red in the face. Watching her was a warning sign. I didn’t want to slide unconsciously into these habits, waking up one morning a slave to my comfort zone.

 
 

False Sense of Security

It’s easy to want to crawl into a safe place as we get older and life becomes more complicated. We start having physical limitations we didn’t have when we were younger; our eyesight dims, our hearing goes, “What?”, or our knees complain when they see stairs. Body maintenance becomes a priority on our To Do List.

These issues erode our confidence and our rapidly changing world sometimes makes us feel we can’t keep up. In order to get a sense of security, I think it’s easy to fall into a routine of comfort, not wanting to venture out and explore the world or try new things. Staying in the safe zone gives us a false sense of control in this chaotic world.

Pushing Our Boundaries Helps Our Brains

Security and confidence have to come from inside. When they do, we can be free to enjoy the comforts or venture out of them for new experiences.

Pushing our boundaries keeps our gray matter active and growing. It’s new experiences that are being found to be one of several ways to keep dementia at bay.

Researcher Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas says that it’s not enough just to get out and do something – it’s important to get out and do something that’s unfamiliar and mentally challenging.

She adds that it must provide broad stimulation mentally and socially because when you’re inside your comfort zone, you may be outside of the enhancement zone.

Having been a caregiver to my husband with Alzheimer’s for 14 years, I’m no stranger to ‘the unfamiliar and mentally challenging.’ That disease was a crash course in flexibility as a survival technique.

The more I held on to what I wanted and how I thought life would be when Alzheimer’s came to call, the more I suffered.

A Decade-Sized Push

I turned 70 last year – a decade birthday that needed a decade-sized push. When I was asked to do a TEDx talk, I saw this as way beyond my comfy zone and into the frozen Arctic tundra of public speaking.

To stand up and talk without notes for 17 minutes in front of 350 people was terrifying. But I did it without messing up. The experience of being on that stage has brought many rewards – a boost to confidence being one of the biggest.

A month later, after a steep learning curve, I published my book, Piece by Piece: Love in the Land of Alzheimer’s. These were extreme challenges for me and took a lot of inner resolve and willingness to experience discomfort.

An Inspiring Friend

My friend Gill is an inspiration to me. At 85 she traveled alone to China, not on a tour, not with a friend, by herself. It was hard going, but she found people to be helpful, and the experiences she had were beyond her expectations.

Listening to her travel stories encourages me to avoid getting stuck and makes me want to remain flexible and open to change. It makes me want to put a little zippered door in my comfort zone that I can zip out of when things get too static.

Small Pushes Are Effective Too

Fortunately, big pushes like this aren’t always necessary to keep us mentally challenged. Smaller ones are also effective. Even doing little changes, such as going to the gym earlier than I’d prefer to avoid the local tourist traffic, took an inner push.

I like my morning routine – two large glasses of water, a cappuccino while checking emails, breakfast, work on my business, and then go to the gym. But the later I go, the worse the traffic. I was stuck in my comfort zone of habit and then stuck in traffic. It was time for a change.

Recently, I had dinner with my 74-year-old friend Sandeh who mentioned she thinks of going to the gym but just can’t seem to get there.

I said, “I’m going tomorrow. I’ll pick you up.” There was no escape now. The very next morning, she bounded up to my car and got in quickly. She said, “I feel so alive! I’m excited to be doing this!”

Don’t Become a Prisoner

Don’t get me wrong; I do enjoy the comfort zone. I just don’t want it to dictate my experience or keep me prisoner to its ease. I find the inertia that it brings more frightening than trying new things.

Do you ever push yourself out of your comfort zone? What are your little pushes and your big ones? What advice do you have for your sisters who are stuck? Please share your experiences and advice!

Susan TerebaSusan Tereba, an artist, jewelry designer and writer, has lived in Bali for 27 years. She had 14 years of experience as the primary caregiver for her husband, who had Alzheimer’s. Susan now writes and speaks with the goal of inspiring other caregivers for those with chronic illnesses. Please visit her website for more details.

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