A Psychologist Explains Why 'Stretch Interventions' Might Be The Key To Self-Growth

Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer walks us through the process of feeling at ease in life by stretching out of our comfort zones.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 19, 2023

A recent study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology highlights the importance of stretching out of your comfort zone to foster positive change and well-being.

I recently spoke to psychologist Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer to understand how brief situational interventions can promote purposeful changes in life. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate a "behavioral stretch intervention"? How does this benefit individuals?

I was always fascinated by the question of how people change and especially intrigued by the gap I often witnessed in my research and practice between intention and action when it comes to making life changes. How and when people make changes in their lives to move toward growth is an important practical and scholarly puzzle.

In my classes, I used to give my students a simple, yet profound, exercise to do something that they define as stretching their 'comfort zone' and to report on their experience and chosen activity. Their experiences and reactions to this exercise were so powerful and inspiring that it got me and Professor Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University, who extensively studies change processes from various perspectives, thinking that this needs to be more thoroughly explored.

We were very surprised to discover that although the idea of comfort zones is prevalent in social discourse, popular media, and literature, as well as in therapeutic settings and change models, it has yet to be explored and operationalized empirically in the scientific literature.

We designed and tested a novel volitional intervention that encourages people to engage in activities 'outside their comfort zone.' We refer to it as a behavioral stretch intervention because it prompts people to engage in activities that they would normally be reluctant to do, in effect stretching themselves beyond their normal comfort zone.

We hypothesized that engaging in brief activities outside one's comfort zone would be psychologically beneficial, enhancing life satisfaction. By engaging in an activity at the edge of their comfort, and realizing that it is within their capacity, people may gain confidence in their ability to thrive in challenging circumstances.

The intervention was found to boost the life satisfaction of people who had relatively low life satisfaction, and it did so over a meaningful period of time – two weeks.

What was the methodology of your study?

Participants were randomly assigned either to a condition that encouraged them to engage in an activity outside of their comfort zone over the following two weeks or to a control condition that encouraged them to keep a record of their regular daily activities.

During the two weeks of the intervention, participants documented their experiences and responses to our instructions. While the control group was asked to describe a day in their life for two weeks, the intervention group documented their experiences, thoughts, and feelings after completing the behavioral stretch task of their choice over each of the two weeks.

They also answered open-ended questions about the task, how they chose it, the effort and courage it required, and how performing it made them feel.

Two weeks after the baseline assessment and after their exposure to the two intervention prompts, and then three weeks after baseline, participants in both groups once again filled out the same assessment of life satisfaction, as well as responded to open-ended questions regarding possible insights from their experience in the previous two weeks.

The findings revealed not only that the intervention boosted the life satisfaction of people who were relatively less happy at baseline, but also what fails to happen in the control condition: few people go outside their comfort zone under normal conditions.

The study also enabled us to explore the facilitators, conditions, and types of activities individuals choose when stepping outside their comfort zones.

Interestingly, the benefits of this intervention seemed most robust among those people who went outside their comfort zone by helping others. Such activities included, for example, choosing to volunteer in a school to help students with hearing loss, donating hair for people who lost theirs due to cancer treatment, and applying to provide foster care.

What are your top pieces of advice for people who are struggling to push themselves out of their comfort zones? How can they make it easier for them?

One useful contribution of our research is to offer a concrete protocol that enables people to plan and execute a stretch activity that, though challenging, is psychologically safe for them. A key component of our intervention is that people choose their out-of-comfort zone activity, giving them agency, fostering the intrinsic motivation that comes with personal choice, and stretching them psychologically while protecting their feelings of comfort and safety.

This study teaches us that a gradual expansion of our comfort zones may benefit from a framework combining flexibility (i.e., self-chosen type and timing of activities) and structure (i.e., commitment to choose and perform activities, required reporting about their experiences, etc.).

So our piece of advice for people would be to create the conditions of both self-awareness and curious experimentation.

Self-awareness

The psychologist Lev Vygotsky coined the term 'zone of proximal development,' which suggests that each of us has a unique range of growth potential in various areas of our lives. We can think about this through three circles:

  1. The innermost circle represents our 'comfort zone', where there is no risk, but our growth potential is rather limited.
  2. The layer of the 'learning zone' represents a state where we are able to feel some discomfort but still stretch our self-perceived limits.
  3. The outermost layer represents the 'panic zone', where it is too challenging to encourage growth, like being in the deep end of the pool when we don't know how to swim.

As our study shows, in a safe space of their own creation, intervention-treated participants were more able to come into direct contact with a broad range of possibilities for experiences as well as to express underdeveloped or unrecognized aspects of themselves.

A first step to becoming more aware of our own unique range of comfort and learning zones would be to write down all the things you would like to try out that are different from what you normally do. This can be something you have wanted to do for a long time but haven't had a chance to do, like taking up a new challenge or something that is opposite to your character/nature or the way you perceive yourself. It can be something small or big, by yourself or with other people.

Then, break them down into concrete actions, schedule a specific time for one activity from the list, and document your experience.

Experiment with an open mind

Maintaining an open and receptive approach may facilitate a readiness to experiment and 'play' with our fear of taking risks and uncertainty aversion.

Reframing the experience differently as an opportunity to learn something new about ourselves may create space for curiosity, engagement, and vitality. We can train our 'growth muscle' to expand our 'comfort zone' through regular exposure to new experiences in familiar places. What does it mean for you to surprise yourself? When was the last time you did something for the first time? It may mean trying out a new hobby, experimenting with a new taste, smiling or giving a compliment to a stranger on the street, or even behaving like a tourist in your own neighborhood.

What are the practical takeaways from your research in terms of the importance of engaging in activities outside of one's comfort zone?

Our study provides preliminary evidence for the potential benefits of intentionally and actively stepping out of one's comfort zone. We suspect that the stretch intervention in the present study would have long-term benefits for those in whom it launches a positive recursive cycle, in which a small success at going outside one's comfort zone inspires one to take more risks and push oneself further beyond one's self-perceived limits, in a potentially repeating cycle.

The findings have practical implications for therapeutic, organizational, and educational programs trying to improve life satisfaction and break people out of hedonic ruts and harmful routines.

It is possible, moreover, that such stretch interventions may generate positive outcomes beyond greater life satisfaction. Stretch interventions may open people up to confronting challenging issues in their lives, forming new friendships, supporting others, and being socially vulnerable — all possible consequences arising from the heightened sense of efficacy that may come from stepping outside their comfort zone.

Although going outside one's comfort zone may be stressful, it is unlikely to be as aversive as people imagine it will be.

Moreover, if people are guided to create their own challenge, they are likely to choose activities that are psychologically safe and feasible for them.

Overall, our research suggests that people can take action to change their experiences and thus themselves, a notion that dovetails with research on the agency people can have in managing their own psychology and personality.

How important is courage in bringing about change?

Consistent with our theoretical argument that stretch activities are courageous and thus self-affirming, the largest effects of the intervention (beyond the manipulation check) were on expressed courage and affirmation, as well as on happiness.

In contrast, control-group participants expressed no courage in the day-to-day activities that they logged. It can be suggested that although courageous acts may be relatively rare in many people's daily social lives, even small acts of courage may broaden thought-action repertoires and build resources that contribute to increased life satisfaction.

Furthermore, facilitating a shift out of an autopilot mode of functioning, toward an interest in breaking routines, may thwart or slow hedonic adaptation by giving rise to new pleasures arising from the anticipation of positive outcomes that may occur but that are uncertain, a mechanism that has been termed 'pleasures of uncertainty.'

Another possibility that we think is particularly important is that our intervention reduces regret.

As research suggests, people tend to regret the actions they did not take rather than the actions they did – and they tend to find excuses to miss many of the seemingly risky opportunities in their lives for growth.

It is possible that our intervention helps people identify and take the steps they believe they could and should take, but often do not.