The comfort zone is a psychological state in which a person feels familiar, at ease, in control, and experiences low anxiety. A person in this state uses a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.
Judith M. Bardwick, author of Danger in the Comfort Zone, defines 'comfort zone' as "a behavioral state where a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position". Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, describes the comfort zone as: "Where our uncertainty, scarcity and vulnerability are minimized — where we believe we’ll have access to enough love, food, talent, time, admiration. Where we feel we have some control.". The comfort zone is the environment where satisfaction comes easily with little effort.
Stepping out of the comfort zone raises anxiety and generates a stress response. This results in an enhanced level of concentration and focus. White (2009) refers to this response as the "optimal performance zone" - a zone in which ones performance can be enhanced while optimizing their skills. However, White (2009) observed the work of Robert Yerkes (1907) who has reported," Anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained." If a person steps beyond the optimum performance zone they enter a "danger zone" in which performance tends to decline rapidly as higher levels of anxiety or discomfort occur. Nevertheless, it is not frequent to enter into the "danger zone." Therefore, the fear of entering into the "danger zone" should not be a reason for young people to give up on their goals.
In terms of performance management or development, the objective of the trainer or manager is to cause the person to enter the optimum performance zone for a sufficient period of time to gain new skills and achieve performance. It is necessary and useful for the learner to try his or her best to move into the "optimum performance zone." The same reasoning is used with goal setting; change the anxiety level and the performance will change(more reasonable anxiety will give more results and achievements). (However, in performance terms, the term "incentive" is used to describe the process of changing the anxiety level - an incentive being anything that causes a change in behavior.)
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An example of stepping out of one's comfort zone would be leaving an old job for a new one. The comfort and security of the old job provided the comfort zone, but the decision to leave and start a new job elsewhere requires leaving the comfort zone.
An example of a comfort zone may be when someone is content operating within a certain behavior zone, for example, self-image. Self-image provides a behavioral comfort zone by developing a series of guidelines by which the person will act due to their self-image. Forms of self-image include :
- Self-image resulting from how the individual sees himself or herself,
- Self-image resulting from how others see the individual; this self-image should not be critical to the individual more than the first.
- Self-image resulting from how the individual perceives others see him or her. This self-image may be bad in sense that the individual's judgment on how people see him or her is most of the time not right nor true.
All these types of self-image are not always congruent with reality, nor are they the only ways self-image is created.
Opportunities for stepping out
An originally Australian company, now spreading its reach world wide, called Mental Health First Aid provides classes for the general public to teach them how to deal with mental health issues. A man named Mike Lange decided to take these classes after witnessing and being affected by the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. Lange decided to step out of his comfort zone and help with community education for mental health disorders and first responders, even though he was being affected by the loss of one of his friends and former colleague's son.
- Alasdair A. K. White "From Comfort Zone to Performance Management" 
- Tugend, Alina (11 February 2011). "Tiptoeing Out of One’s Comfort Zone (and of Course, Back In)". Retrieved 11 December 2014.
- Rebecca A. Clay 'Mental Health First Aid' 
- Bardwick, Judith. Danger in the Comfort Zone: How to Break the Entitlement Habit that's Killing American Business. New York: American Management Association, 1995. ISBN 0-8144-7886-7.
- White, Alasdair A. K. "From Comfort Zone to Performance Management" White & MacLean Publishing 2009. ISBN 978-2-930583-01-3. 
- Yerkes, R & Dodson, J. - "The Dancing Mouse, A Study in Animal Behavior" 1907 "Journal of Comparative Neurology & Psychology", Number 18, pp 459–482