Latest From the Lab: Is Embracing Discomfort Key to Success?


I spent part of July glued to the World Track and Field Championships, featuring the best-in-class athletes running, jumping, or throwing for their countries. Multiple world records were shattered, and I couldn’t help but wonder how athletes are still able to break boundaries and reach new peaks. While I’m no professional athlete, I am a marathon runner and think that a key to their success is embracing discomfort as a source of growth. If you’d like a perfect example, check out the infamous running workout “The Michigan,” a routine so dreadful that even finishing it is an accomplishment.

Why even show up for practice that day? The answer is likely that these athletes have embraced the physical discomfort of training as fuel for their success. Years of research tell us that makes sense: stressing our bodies allows us to rebuild stronger.

In the workplace arena, we’re also faced with fierce competition and discomfort. I don’t know about you, but it feels like the pressure to constantly innovate and perform is a never-ending challenge that’s now compounded with a constant stream of competing priorities. With this pressure comes feelings of angst and discomfort that can understandably prevent anyone from making progress. But what if we could use these obstacles as fuel for success?

New research suggests we can and we should because embracing challenges and the necessary discomfort may be the key to sprinting out of our comfort zone and reaching optimal performance levels.

The power of discomfort

In the July issue of Nature, researchers examined the impact of a brief cognitive intervention on participants’ ability to perform in the face of future challenges. Designed as a 30-minute online self-administered learning program, it targeted two mindsets: a growth mindset, which is the idea that skills can be improved over time, and a stress-can-be-enhancing mindset, or the idea that our physiological stress response can fuel performance.

After the intervention, participants displayed not only lower physiological measures of stress and anxiety, such as cortisol levels, but also improvements in self-reported well-being and cognitive performance, such as greater rates of learning and performance when tested, particularly in the face of new stressors. Amazingly, the effects on performance were long-lasting, still present six months later. What’s more, the outcomes were greatest with a synergistic approach: only when participants embraced both the notion that challenges can lead to self-improvement and the understanding that discomfort may be an integral component of the challenge did such results surface.

The science of mindset synergy

Foundational here is the power of a mindset, or a cognitive process that operates more generally than situationally. In contrast to building skills for a specific challenge, a mindset can enable preparation for a wide array of stressors that may hinder our improvement, including completely new or unpredicted situations — like the ever-changing work-life pandemic-related experience.

In a synergy of mindsets, we first must have a growth mindset. The secret ingredient, however, may be in the physiological response that occurs when we’re faced with a new challenge: that uncomfortable feeling of anxiety or nervousness, sometimes appearing as sweaty palms or a pit in your stomach. We often appraise these feelings as anticipation of distress or social defeat, leading to avoidance behavior. However, if we refocus this experience through the lens of a stress-can-be-enhancing mindset, we could aid our success. Indeed, in the study, participants’ appraisal of the situation shifted from “these feelings are not helping me and are uncontrollable” to “these feelings are helping me get the fuel needed to approach this challenge.” With this shift, participants chose to take advantage of the experience, turning it into fuel rather than worry or distraction.

Here, participants demonstrated the benefits of a combined approach for the best long-term outcomes. Since the approach included the challenge along with physiological feelings of the challenge, the combination of mindsets showed a reduction in the negative effect of avoidance, leading to a towards-state that increases productivity and growth.

Neural underpinnings may lie in the push-pull relationship between limbic brain regions that engage when we’re faced with a threat and the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and surrounding regions that engage when we’re focused. Similar to the benefits received when using emotional-regulation techniques, these mindset shifts allow us to reengage the PFC in the face of new challenges and quickly regain cognitive control of the challenge. This could look like changing your thinking from, “I’m not good at this task,” to “I’m not good at this task, yet.” Try this out, and notice the way a task can suddenly feel less daunting.

Another technique is to try reappraising an uncomfortable experience by going from: “This challenge will be painful to me,” to “This challenge will help me.” Finally, sometimes it can help to get an outside perspective to support this mindset shift and remind you that the discomfort and uncertainty around the outcomes is normal as we approach the boundaries of comfort.

So the next time you’re faced with a task you’ve never tried or a role you’ve never had and that familiar knot begins to form in your stomach, go ahead and embrace it. These are opportunities for growth, and the feelings are fuel for improvement, because it may be time to jump outside of our comfort zone and break our own records.


Author: Emma Sarro, Ph.D.

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