Why Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Promotes Learning

5 min read

By Mac E. Lancaster, BS, Aneesh Nudurupati, and Ran D. Anbar, MD.

In the sphere of psychological well-being, the comfort zone is frequently perceived as a haven, a familiar location where individuals feel calm and at peace. Pushing beyond this psychological threshold might have several cognitive and emotional benefits. This post delves into the complex interplay of psychological elements that emphasize the need to move outside one’s comfort zone, using the process of learning a new musical instrument as an example.

The comfort zone can be understood as a behavioral metaphor. Within a comfort zone, an individual takes on a state of minimal anxiety without a perception of risk, responding predictably to deliver a consistent level of performance (White, 2008). These include behaviors that people do commonly, find relaxing, or that take them away from high-stress situations.

Engaging in the same manner over time leads to a predictable and familiar zone of comfort. As creatures of habit, we become reliant on these routines that we know we can complete well to feel secure (Van Gelderen, 2023). However, by stepping outside of our comfort zone, we learn about our ability to handle new situations and control risks, leading to greater self-efficacy, and lower levels of anxiety (Kiknadze & Leary, 2021).

One study found that individuals who are more secure in stepping out of their comfort zone are more likely to be excited by and look forward to new experiences, feeling greater confidence in their ability to take them on (Kiknadze & Leary, 2021).

The Goatman/Shutterstock

Source: The Goatman/Shutterstock

Music to Expand Comfort Zones

One behavior that demonstrates the benefits of stepping out of a comfort zone is learning to play a musical instrument. When we consider actions outside of our comfort zone, we must assess our desire to engage in that activity. By weighing the pros and cons, we evaluate how uncomfortable a situation may seem, and whether the danger of entering such an unknown situation will be worth the risk.

For instance, one of the pros of learning a musical instrument would be finding an outlet to express your emotions, while a con could be feeling pressure to play music in public, which many might perceive as an intimidating task.

Although actions that move beyond the comfort zone are generally perceived as risky and unfamiliar, moving beyond this territory can challenge habitual behaviors and promote growth (Van Gelderen, 2023). The first step may take courage and discipline, but by taking consistent initiative to move outside the comfort zone, the capacity to learn and adapt is strengthened.

Music offers a safe way to step out of your initial comfort zone because you can begin by practicing in an isolated setting, which offers a casual, safe way to build a new skill set. By picking up and practicing a new instrument, you have proven to yourself that you are competent in meeting an unfamiliar objective, thus decreasing anxiety. When this level of execution becomes the new zone of comfort, you are ready to move to the next zone, which in this case would be playing in front of others, and conquering possible performance anxiety.

The Danger Zone

It is going to be much more beneficial as a new player to set your sights on learning a song and work to accomplish that as a first step outside of your comfort zone, rather than feeling underprepared as you perform a show with limited musical knowledge and vocabulary in front of your friends and family.

The reason behind this is that there is a limit to how far people should be pushed out of their comfort zone at one time. Stress is a given in life and will come with new situations; however, manipulating situations to be more stressful for the sake of growth can be detrimental to mental health (Brown, 2008).

Mac E. Lancaster

Zones of Comfort and Growth

Source: Mac E. Lancaster

This interplay between comfort and growth is illustrated in the learning theory proposed by educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky, which set forth the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD can be imagined using three circles centering inside each other. The center circle marks the comfort zone, surrounded by the ZPD (also known as the optimal learning zone), and just outside lies the danger zone.

While leaving one’s comfort zone leads to learning, going too far prematurely can prompt the danger zone, where the individual feels overwhelmed and fearful and is not able to learn or adapt (Zaki et al., 2021). Engaging within the optimal learning zone is where new life lessons and skills are best inspired.


The psychological benefits of stepping outside one’s comfort zone are profound. Although discomfort may seem to be a hindrance, it is within your capacity to invite in new experiences, viewing them as catalysts for learning and self-discovery. If you are stuck feeling overwhelmed by a novel situation, remind yourself how you have expanded your zone of comfort in the past and that you can do it again.

Mac Lancaster obtained his undergraduate degree in Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience at UC San Diego. Aneesh Nudurupati is a high school student who helped extensively with the literature search for this blog.

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