I recently came to a realisation. This realisation wasn’t eye-opening or new. It was something I already knew and in fact, something I had found out multiple times over the past few years, but something I forgot and had to re-discover. It’s about comfort zones.
A comfort zone is that space, both physical and mental, where you feel comfortable. It’s not the place where you feel happy per se, but it’s the place where happiness and joy are more likely. This can be a place near your family, friends, partner or anyone or anything you truly care about. Depending on your genetics and your upbringing, this comfort zone may extend far beyond the physical place where you were born in or where your family and friends live, like in the case when you’re living in a foreign country. Or it might be the town where you’ve grown up in. Each person has their own comfort zone, and their own limits of how much and how far they want to extend it.
In my case, my mission is to have the biggest comfort zone possible. That might sound brave to some, scary to others and downright awful to the rest. Whatever you think of it, at one point in my life, I created this mission and I tend to live by it. Check out this post about how I try to do that, but for now let’s focus on what it has done for me so far. Ever since I’ve left the Netherlands, first for India and then for Prague, I’ve discovered that not being in your comfort zone for a long time is not as easy as it sounds.
My initial assumption was that however long you’re out of your comfort zone, at some point in the future the situation that at first was uncomfortable will eventually become part of your comfort zone. So in the case of emigrating to a new country; no matter how long you’ll be living there, at one point everything will start to become normal. It will become the new standard, a new part of your comfort zone from which you can extend your comfort zone even further.
But after not having been in my comfort zone for the past nine months, I still don’t feel comfortable. Throughout these months, I’ve been suffering from anxiety in various degrees. Some days are really hard. Some days are easy. And yes, that’s basically life. But what I’ve noticed is that now that I’m not in my comfort zone, things that would usually cause a healthy amount of stress, like in my case flying, are now really hard. Like, really really hard. I’ve experienced multiple panic attacks on several flights over the past few months, whereas when I was living in Amsterdam – part of my comfort zone – I would feel nervous about flying somewhere, but it would never get to that peak stress-level where I would panic.
I’ve noticed that my mental state is relative to my comfort zone. This is not surprising, but actually experiencing how this affects how you feel is really interesting. For example, flying to Australia while living in Amsterdam last year was super easy. The long flight, being so far away from home; I had an anxious thought maybe once or twice, but they passed as I was enjoying the adventure. Experiencing a few hours of heavy turbulence on the way back was scary as hell, but it never affected me for longer than the experience lasted. As soon as the turbulence stopped, my stress levels returned to normal.
Now, however, being out of my comfort zone for such a long time, just thinking about being so far away from home immediately makes me feel anxious. The thought of having to be on a plane for 24 hours to get back home could make me panic here and now. And I think it’s because I don’t have the mental safe space right now, where I can watch those thoughts without clinging to it. If you feel safe and comfortable, internal ‘threads’, thoughts that cause anxiety, depression or panic, can be watched, accepted and disregarded as non-relevant. If you don’t feel safe or comfortable, these internal threads are hard to shake. You want to feel comfortable, but these thoughts make you feel stressed and anxious. So the default response is “I don’t want to have these thoughts“. You want them to go away; being outside of your comfort zone is already hard enough and having to deal with unwanted thoughts only worsens the problem. But fighting against your own thoughts is the main cause for more anxiety and ultimately, panic attacks.
Having spent the past week in The Netherlands has made me realise how important all of this is for your quality of life. In Prague, my mind is always on, always thinking. And not about anything relevant; it’s obsessively repeating the same things over and over again, stuck in a loop that causes waves of anxiety. Being with my friends and family in The Netherlands however made my mind stop. I experienced a quiet mind for the first time in a few months and it was amazing. I felt joy. I was able to completely wind down. I was happy.
Life is a series of experiments, and the one I’m currently running, living in Prague, has taught me a lot already: What works for me, how important family and friends are, what I like and don’t like about living in different countries. I’m not moving back soon and in fact, I know that I will move to other countries as well. Just because this experiment didn’t result in a happier life, doesn’t mean it failed. I’m still learning, everyday, and as long as I keep learning, any experiment is worth the effort.