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Sink or swim? Finding comfort in challenge!

Much is talked about "getting outside the comfort zone", yet what about focusing on using the comfort zone to make the most of downtime, to recharge and be fully ready to charge back into the fray? Challenge is inevitable in life, and best tackled following a period of rest and recuperation. With an adventurous attitude we can learn to shift the baseline, seeing opportunities to find comfort within environments that stretch our capabilities...




I champion an Adventure Neuropsychology approach to inspire and motivate others in the face of adversity and the challenges of life. This draws on escapades I have experienced as well as observing those who prevail in adventurous predicaments to provide insight into the mindset necessary to thrive under stress. As well as a basis in cutting-edge neuroscientific research into how the brain operates in extreme environments to optimise performance.

“In everyday life, we engage in challenging circumstances whether we like it or not. But often we neglect its counterpoint – when we rest, we tend to ruminate, or distract ourselves with ‘doom scrolling’, or we try to juggle priorities and thoughts about what next. Yet all of this does not help us to be more productive – sometimes less so – and contributes to the vicious circle of stress...When we adopt a more adventurous attitude...craft a different definition of comfort, seen within the wider context of being adventurous."

That sinking feeling


“Attention all divers, this is your early morning call! Please get ready to assemble on the foredeck at 0700!”


Eurgh. Feel like I’ve only just got to sleep and my head is not as clear as it ought to be.


The evening’s escapades begin to reformulate from a haze of fragments as I slowly ascend into wakefulness.


There was something about a whale. And a flagpole. Ah yes, I was performing the ‘human flagpole’ which is an agile manoeuvre incorporating the oblique muscles, using a pillar to exhibit gymnastic prowess.


Too many drinks had been sourced from underneath a cushion in the lounge area. Not so wise in retrospect. The party trick was inevitably going to be on display. ‘Midnight sun’ and exotic locale can be a heady mix that prevents the usual restraint.


At some point in the proceedings someone excitedly cried out: “A blue whale! A blue whale!”


I vaguely recall my counterpoint: “Sod the blue whale, look at the human flagpole!!”

As the 90ft behemoth (apparently) swam right past the window.

The trip was the high point of my many adventures, for various reasons. We were as far north as I have ever journeyed. Up to 82 degrees north, only a few hundred kilometres from the North Pole. The magical, mystical land of Svalbard.


Our vessel was an ice breaker and expedition cruising ship. It really was the best of both worlds.


As part of the diving contingent, I got to arise early, donning my cumbersome gear ready to jump into some of the coldest waters on the planet. We’d then be winched down from the mothership on zodiacs that could race off across the sea to deposit us by an ice floe.

After this exploratory diving in water that could be as cold as minus 1 or 2 degrees C, racing back like a troop of frogmen to the ship, we would have a splendid feast with silver service in convivial company of other passengers.


Whilst polar bears wandered past the window.


On this particular episode, a little worse the wear for overdoing it in the small hours (tut-tut), the dive was a little more challenging than anticipated.


We disembarked into the sea at the edge of a large stretch of ice that was the continuation of the shore. Traced back, this led to a majestic glacier which tumbled down from a spectacular mountain range. Where the ice met the water, a halocline took form. This is a layer of water where freshwater (from the ice) mingled with the sea water. It leaves a fuzziness in the water column that can disorient somewhat.


Whilst I have dived below ice before, this was a slightly different situation. Ice-diving involves specific procedures involving tethers (roped attachment to the surface) as a guidance and safety feature to always find your way back to the surface. Because we were essentially in open water, this was a different protocol, and shouldn’t necessitate having tethers.


The trouble was, you need to have your bearings and make sure you don’t head off under the ice in the direction of land, or you have to come all the way back out from underneath to the sea. Getting lost and heading too far in can be disastrous.

It should have been straightforward, but the halocline blurred the distinction a little, coupled with a less than clear head (I know, I know). And as can all too quickly happen in such hostile environments, you get a bit confused as to which way is which.


Suffice to say it didn’t go all horribly pear shaped, I found my bearings and made sensible choices, but there were some learnings from this (always be aware of where you are and what you are doing, particularly if you have ‘overdone it’ and betrayed a cardinal rule or two). Take stock of yourself, pause and review your situation. And most importantly don’t just react on impulse and risk getting yourself further in the clarts (to colloquialises momentarily).


The essence of what I am saying here though concerns the ‘comfort zone’. And its counterpart the ‘stretch zone’. I get asked about this so-called comfort zone and how and when we should step beyond it. Now as with everything, it’s about balance.


Balance between doing things that are challenging and between taking rests.


This is what was perfect about the voyage. Initially I was a little nonplussed to realise there was a degree of comfort on the vessel, having expected a much rougher and readier affair (as befits explorers). But the contrast between early morning sojourns on motorised inflatables out to icebergs, past walruses, with the possibility of polar bears in the water alongside you (and protocols to get the hell out of there as quick as), and the highly civilised mealtimes, really impressed upon me how vital it can be to equalise comfort and discomfort!


In everyday life, we engage in challenging circumstances whether we like it or not. But often we neglect its counterpoint – when we rest, we tend to ruminate, or distract ourselves with ‘doom scrolling’, or we try to juggle priorities and thoughts about what next. Yet all of this does not help us to be more productive – sometimes less so – and contributes to the vicious circle of stress.


You have to be disciplined sometimes to enforce ‘being in the comfort zone’ - or at least making the most out of being in it so you get the maximal benefit and are suitably recharged for those more challenging events when you throw yourself back into the fray.


One further thing, and which is my slightly skewed perspective, concerns shifting the baseline.


What indeed is the ‘comfort zone’? If it’s flopping on the sofa and becoming glued to a screen, this can become lethargy-inducing, as the insidious nature of so-called comfort prevents any motivation from doing things that would better serve your aspirations. We can convince ourselves that we are better off doing nothing.


When we adopt a more adventurous attitude and put a bit of effort into doing things that are challenging yet which reap rewards for doing so, we craft a different definition of comfort, seen within the wider context of being adventurous.


Whilst I am often accused of being all about action, in fact I see myself as something of a ‘lazy tiger’. Who wants to chase gazelles all day long when you can lounge up a tree for prolonged periods in between all that predating?


On adventure trips I relish the downtime. The moments in between the action. In fact, it’s the selling point. Whether I've been on a raft in the jungle, or at high altitude, or reposing on a glacier, or away at sea on a sailing vessel, it’s the moments when nothing much is happening that I really embrace. And these moments add up.


There is something supremely satisfying about taking a well-earned rest when you know you have experienced things that can be hair raising, or simply just a bit stretching. This gives the default mode something to mull over without distracting itself with anxious thoughts about this or that or trying do its own version of aimless scrolling on instagram.


I bet you sleep better for it as well.


Whilst much advice rests on the premise that we should stretch ourselves and push our limits and so on and so forth, maybe we need to re-evaluate our notion of comfort. Displace what you thought of as the comfort zone – take it away from the sofa and up the tree, on the hill, out on the ocean! Or simply make the most of being comfortable so it gives you the zest to tackle some of life’s challenges with vigour born from having a proper good rest!


Take some comfort in that. Extreme comfort!





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