Out-of-Comfort Zones, Exercise High, and Visualization: Powerful Ingredients for Change


By Dr. Allison Belger

About a year ago, somebody asked me to define what Effort means to me.  I was asked the question on camera during an interview about sport, with no time beforehand to ponder or plan a well-crafted, intelligent response.  What came to me immediately (so I went with it) was the idea of being outside of one’s comfort zone while working towards a goal or trying to improve one’s self in some way.  Effort is about being outside of that cocoon of safety, outside of the experience of what is known or predictable.  When we are in our comfort zone, we don’t have to work very hard.  We know what to expect, we can go through the motions, and survival is a given.  Sure there may be output–thinking, speaking, cooking, moving, learning, etc.–but there is little emotional or existential energy expended.  This is an arena in which we do not question our worth, take risks, or wonder if we have what it takes to succeed.  We do not fear for our safety, and we can count on a base level of comfort or, at the very least, familiarity with mild discomfort.

When we leave our comfort zone, our world changes dramatically.  We do not take for granted that we will be ok or that things will work out for the best.  We wonder about our competency and question our skills and abilities.  We feel anxious, we are guarded, our senses are heightened.  Whether conscious or not, being outside of our zone of comfort has significant ramifications for our internal experience.

Here’s a good way of thinking about the differences in hormonal and unconscious processes between being inside one’s comfort zone and being outside of it.  Think about how many times have you driven your car through a route that is routine for you—maybe it’s picking up your kids at school or driving to work or to the gym.  When you arrive at your destination, you realize that you don’t even remember the turns you took to get there.  It is as though you were on autopilot, driving in a zone of comfort.  Now think about a time when you’ve been heading out for an event that already has some stress involved—perhaps a job interview or a fancy fundraiser where you were the guest speaker, or a medical appointment where you would receive important test results.  Perhaps your destination was an unfamiliar town, and you had to drive through a “bad” neighborhood to get there.  Add the pressure of arriving on time and maybe some inclement weather along the way.  You get the idea.  Now you are outside of your comfort zone, and you are acutely aware of each turn you make.  Your body is on alert, your hormones are firing, and you are expending far more effort than you did when you drove on those routine outings.  You might question yourself and why you agreed to speak in the first place or why you bothered to seek that new job.  You might wonder if that map you read was even correct, or if the GPS was programmed properly, and you may even roll up your windows, sensing more danger outside than actually exists.

When we experience life outside of our zones of comfort, significant is energy expended—our body is revving up the systems that might be needed for survival.  As a kind of fight-or-flight situation, we are preparing for physical exertion of some kind—all systems are on and ready for battle, which will, in theory at least, involve physical exertion.  Let’s imagine that we could slip into that mode more often and harvest that kind of energy with purpose and intention, without the downside of significant worry or anxiety.  Actually, I think we can, and many of us do this without even realizing it.  We can generate the hormonal and psychological response via intense exercise or action to take us to places that are truly uncomfortable.  We can then harness that energy, putting it to work to create something better.

Just this past week, Lisbeth Darsh used the term “the tunnel” to describe the place of experience during intense CrossFit workouts when an athlete has to dig down deep for a new form of survival (Darsh, 2013).  There’s a profound psycho-physiolgical experience in that “tunnel.”  What if along the way we could learn about ourselves and what we’re made of — what our stumbling blocks are and why we persist (over and over) with self-defeating behaviors?  What if we could find out that we have far more in us than we thought?  And what if we could use the fuel wisely and with purpose, to the benefit of positive change in our lives?

Research suggests that exercise helps combat anxiety and depression and also helps to relieve stress (Asmundson et al, 2013; Smith, 2013; DeBoer et al, 2012; Tsatsoulis et al, 2006; Morgan, 1985).  While there is some ambiguity about the mechanisms of these effects, it seems clear that exercise makes us feel good (not surprising, right?).  We’ve all heard of the runner’s high and the idea that people can be addicted to exercise because of the endorphin rush involved (Chapman & De Castro, 1990).  Runner’s high has been linked to a number of different biochemical underpinnings, including the opiods (Boecker et al, 2008) and endorphins.  There’s a particularly interesting development in some research suggesting that runner’s high–which can be captured via other forms of exercise, too–may actually be the result of a psychological experience of having overcome a challenge (Hinton & Taylor, 1986), which is the experience I’m exploring here.  It’s the experience of having overcome a physical challenge–of having pushed through the “tunnel” and come out alive and well—that has great potential as a catalyst for change.

When we have plodded through a particularly intense workout and come out the other side intact—when we have emerged from our non-comfort zone, having conquered our fears about our competencies and survival (used liberally no doubt, but legitimately), we are primed and ready to take on other challenges that may or may not be physical.  People say it all the time, “After a good workout, I feel like the hardest part of my day is over and I can handle whatever comes next.”  But that feeling can be fleeting as life throws us curve balls and we are forced to deal with our anxieties and insecurities once again.  If we could just make the process more deliberate and explicit—create and execute an actual plan for applying that post-workout high to life beyond the training zone—with greater benefits and results.

Along these lines, I’ve had good success with a practice I use with athletes at our gyms after completion of a particularly challenging workout.  They lie flat on their backs, and I walk them through a progressive muscle relaxation exercise—a great way to induce a meditative state and sense of calm that allows for introspection.  Then, with their eyes closed, they are encouraged to think about goals, desires, and dreams and focus on one for the moment.  They are told to think about what obstacles might get in the way of that goal and then visualize themselves achieving it.  There is a great deal of power in imaging a discrete, positive outcome just after we’ve been the victor in a physical endeavor (via a workout, a long run, a great climb, a particularly challenging tennis match).  Our psyches may have an enhanced confidence in our abilities and potential.  Combine that conviction with positive visualization, and you’ve got a potent ingredient for progress.  Try it some time: after an especially hard workout or other physical effort, run through the steps above and start working towards a difficult goal.  It may be as specific as getting a pull-up or mastering another athletic skill, or it may be a longer-term, broader goal like finding a new job or working through a relationship challenge with a family member.  Don’t expect miracles from one effort, though.  You’ve heard it here before: change takes time and commitment.  But making use of the fuel we generate when being outside of our comfort zones is a great way to fast-forward the process of change.

I realize some of you may be thinking, “Who has time for that?”  It’s just like saying, “Who has time to stretch, mobilize, hydrate, write results in a training journal?”  The list goes on.  Change takes effort (there’s that word again) and consistency.  The work is worth it if it works, right?  Try it: the progress you seek may be right there, within your grasp.


Asmundson G., Fetzner M., Deboer L., Powers M., Otto M., Smits J (2013). Let’s get physical: a contemporary review of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for anxiety and its disorders. Depression and Anxiety, 30(4):362-73.

Boecker H, Sprenger T, Spilker ME, Henriksen G, Koppenhoefer M, Wagner KJ, Valet M, Berthele A, & Tolle T., 2008. “The Runner’s High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain.” Cerebral Cortex, 18 (11): 2523–31.

Chapman C. and De Castro J., 1990. Running addiction: measurement and associated psychological characteristics. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 1990;30:283-290.

Darsh, L. (2013). http://crossfitlisbeth.com/2013/06/04/the-tunnel/

DeBoer L., Powers M., Utschig A., Otto M., Smits J., 2012.  Exploring exercise as an avenue for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 12(8):1011-22.

Hinton E, Taylor S (1986). “Does placebo response mediate runner’s high?” Perceptual Motor Skills 62 (3): 789–90.

Morgan, W. Affective beneficence of vigorous physical activity. Medicine Science in Sports and Exercise 1985;17:94-100.

Tsatsoulis, A.,  Fountoulakis, S., 2006.  The protective role of exercise on stress system dysregulation and comorbidities. In George P. (Ed); Tsigos, Constantine (Ed). Stress, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol 1083, (pp. 196-213). New York, NY, US.

Smith, J.C., 2013.  Effects of emotional exposure on state anxiety after acute exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 45(2):372-8.


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