Stepping out of our comfort zone can be scary. So why should we - or would we- want to do it more? In this article I’m looking at how a 10-day honeymoon inadvertently functioned as a self-development retreat- pushing boundaries, rebooting the body, broadening perspective and driving peak performance. This isn’t about can or can’t: it’s about being curious to what’s possible.
My new husband and I spent our honeymoon in Belize. Forget all-inclusive beach resorts and poolside cocktails. This was an action-packed adventure that was constantly offering us a taste of the unknown. Scuba diving with sharks, bouldering through water-filled caves and hiking through snake infested jungles were just a few of the activities that had our hearts beating a bit faster than usual! And whilst theses unfamiliar experiences had us-at times- feeling uncomfortable, they also offered us an abundance of life affirming benefits. Notably, present awareness, perspective, potential and possibility. This is the power of pushing past the comfort zone. What a way to start our adventure into married life!
…And what a way to live a life!
Here are 5 reasons why you might want to step out of your comfort zone too:
1. It ‘resets’ survival instincts
Within hours of landing in Central America we were hiking through a jungle just outside of San Ignacio. Jet-lagged, stressed and overwhelmed by our recent move to America, we perhaps should have opted for a lounger by a swimming pool and a large glass of wine. Not an insect infested jungle hike, in the midday heat, without any bug spray. My husband Dan- who is particularly uncomfortable around anything that buzzes and almost always ends up bitten- quickly started to feel unsettled by the humid jungle environment. Whilst I am more tolerant of flying things and am fortunate that I never get bitten (it’s my super power!) I also began to get unnerved by the unidentifiable rustles all around us. Suddenly, a great big frog grabbed onto my leg and triggered what is known as the fight or flight response, an automatic and involuntary survival response activated by a deep an ancient part of the brain. Whilst a frog is not the most fierce-some of all jungle creatures, its surprise factor was enough to trip the survival switch and have us fleeing back to our car!
It was only when we stepped out of our comfort zone and into the jungle that this survival response became useful, as the physiological reaction that caused us to run back to the car successfully solved the stress-inducing issue. As a result, once we were safe and snug back in our air-conditioned jeep, my body returned back to a balanced state. And for the first time since landing in Belize I felt relaxed and calm. How about that! Stepping out of my comfort zone and into the jungle managed to reset my internal operating system and took me out of a sustained, low-level state of stress (probably induced by a flight cancellation and multiple changes to our journey!) It’s as if the experience reminded my body about what can be solved from fighting, freezing or running away and what’s better off being considered with a clear head and a calm body…
2. It broadens perspective
Belize provided us with a wealth of new experiences, unfamiliar environments and our first encounter with the ancient Maya civilisation. The often inconceivable dates of the Maya civilisation go back as far as 2600 B.C and span over 3000 years. So, the Maya ruins were by far, the oldest place Dan and I have ever discovered. And yes, I mean ‘discovered’ in its literal sense, as much of the ruins are still unexcavated. Just this year researchers discovered more than 60,000 hidden Maya ruins in Guatemala using the latest laser technology. In fact, there’s so much undiscovered history that archaeologists are having to cover up many new findings as there’s simply not enough time or money to properly excavate the sites.
Exploring the ruins of Cahal Pech and Xunatunich (pronounced shoe-nan-tune-itch) was like wandering around another planet. Yet, stepping into this unknown land unlocked a huge amount of perspective. The camera lens zoomed out and expanded my perspective way beyond the normal perspective-shifting parameters that I have encountered. Volunteering in the Philippines and moving abroad are two of my most recent perspective-expanding experiences. However, they only encompassed perspectives from the present day (and parts of recent history). Ancient history opened up a whole other world I’d never before considered, and it both amazed me and realigned me with the big picture. To use the wonderful words of David Mitchell (author of 'Cloud Atlas'), “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” Stepping out of ‘the familiar’ helped me to recognise the vastness of space and time as well as appreciate the brilliant, beautiful- and sometimes bizarre- diversity in the human race: past, present and future!
3. It increases performance
The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (otherwise known as the ATM Cave), has been proclaimed by the National Geographic Society as the number one sacred cave in the world. We’re going to build on that by declaring that this is- to date- the best adventure tour we’ve ever been on!
Just moments after getting our hard helmets on we were swimming through a river and straight into a 2km jungle trek (where we told to watch out for ‘moving roots’ !) After several more river crossings we discovered the entrance of the ATM cave and this is where our caving adventure began. Our guide had us wall climbing, squeezing through tiny cracks, swimming under rocks and jumping between ledges. Half a kilometre inside the cave we found a Maya archaeological site that includes skeletons, ceramics, and stoneware. According to our guide it’s the only unexcavated archaeological site in the world that’s open to the public, so it really does feel as if you are discovering it for the first time. To heighten this experience, our guide encouraged us to turn off our head torches and submerge ourselves in absolute darkness and an empty silence, which was like nothing we had ever encountered before.
A famous experiment conducted way back in 1908, used mice to show how stimulation (up to a certain level) improved performance. This is now known as optimal anxiety (or “productive discomfort”) and in the right doses it improves productivity and performance. I can certainly see the positive effects of this during our caving adventure, as I can’t imagine I would have managed to (or wanted to) straddle across a 40ft drop had I not been pushed by adrenaline!
Both the environment and the adventure were so new and unfamiliar and yet so exhilarating. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we’ve joined a climbing club in Charlotte with the intention of exploring the caves in the nearby Rocky Mountains! So, stepping out of our comfort zone opened a door to a new favourite hobby and expanded what we thought was possible. We’re getting to grips with bouldering and top rope climbing, so the next step out of our comfort zone will be learning how to lead climb (which is where you clip yourself in as you climb).
4. It creates a new ’normal’
The second half of our honeymoon took us to Ambergris Caye, a characterful island located in the Caribbean sea. We traded in 4x4 driving for scuba diving and gained our Open Water Padi in Belize's barrier reef, the second biggest in the world!
Learning to breathe underwater (whilst surrounded by sharks!) was pretty scary. I found myself tracking my breath, fearful that my next inhalation would never come! But after a few dives, breathing underwater became as easy as driving a car. Which highlights the brain's amazing ability to adapt to unfamiliar experiences. Every time you try a new activity you build new neural pathways in the brain. And the more you repeat the activity, the stronger those neural pathways become. So, overtime, you really can rewire your brain with new attitudes, behaviours and beliefs!
Brain plasticity has proven that the brain can adapt and change... right into old age! So, use it, don't lose it and challenge yourself to try something new. “As you move outside of your comfort zone, what was once the unknown and frightening becomes your new normal.” (Robin S. Sharma)
5. It stimulates present awareness.
Our honeymoon was full of risk-taking, unfamiliar experiences and first-time encounters. Perhaps the greatest gift this gave us was the ability to stay present. The last 10 weeks have brought a lot change- notably getting married and moving abroad- and the months ahead will bring even more as we start to set up our new life in North Carolina. Yet, amidst all the planning and organising it’s easy to get lost in the ‘doing’ and lose track of ‘being’ in the moment. To use the wise words of Sir John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
This is why I’m so pleased we decided to book our honeymoon right in the middle of our move to America (we were actually in Charlotte for less that 7 hours before we jumped on a plane to Belize!) Whilst this might seem like a silly time to take a holiday it turned out to be exactly what we both needed. Our honeymoon acted like an interval between Act.1 Life in London, and Act.2 Life in Charlotte and gave us the opportunity to break out of the ‘doing’ cycle. After all, we’re not called human doings: we’re human beings and when we step off the treadmill we give ourselves the space to stop and take track of our lives. Lots of amazing memories have been made this year and I’m sure there are many more to come. But right now, all I’m interested in is the one that I’m in.
Where we went:
-Villa Cayo- this is possibly the most beautifully located AirBnb we've ever visited. Virginia and Ken are the most amazing hosts and helped us book the best tours and restaurants. Don't hesitate to book, it's a real gem and just a drive away from secret waterfalls, temples and so many adventures! We'd recommend hiring a car if you are planning on staying here, we used Crystal (you'll definitely need a 4x4!)
-Cahal Pech and Xunatunich- if you drive to either of these ruins you can usually pick up a guide at the entrance. We'd highly recommend getting a guide for Xuantunich as they know so much about the extensive ruins.
-Crave House of Flavour- fancier restaurant located in the main town. Do not miss this restaurant- they served up the best lobster I have ever tasted and for a fraction of the usual price! (It was so good we ended up going twice!)
-Benny's Kitchen- local restaurant located just across the river from Xunatunich. Famous for Pork Pibil- which is a pig that has been cooked underground for 3 days.
-Ko-Ox Han-Nah ("Let's go eat") otherwise known as 'Hannah's'- another local favourite right in the centre of town. Yummy Belizean classics, all served with rice and beans.
San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
-Chuck and Robbie's Scuba Diving Centre- They offer great tuition, take you to amazing dive spots and the team are really fun and chilled!
-Daydreamin'- This Airbnb has it all. Brilliant location, outside the main city but walking distance from some of island's best restaurants and bars. Beautiful people who made sure our honeymoon was a trip to remember. And a fantastic breakfast served to our balcony every morning (washed down with the best coffee I've ever tasted! ) They also host a popular event on Thursday's called the Wine Down- so expect live music, tapas and a variety of different wines!
- All the food here was great, we didn't have a bad meal! Expects lots of rice and beans and some amazing seafood. Two of our favourites were The Hungry Grouper and Elvi's Kitchen, both of which are locally owned and reasonably priced. For street food, fun and live music check out the Truck Stop (which is right near Daydreamin').
-A tiny island, 30- minutes by boat from Ambergris Caye. We visited for a day and wish we had stayed here longer. It's a lot less touristy than San Pedro and the pace of life is SO slow! Definitely considering staying for a few nights, there are enough beach barbecues and parties to keep you entertained.