Comfort Zones: Instant Stress Reduction

Creating comfort zones

Yesterday was the first time this year it was cold enough to wear down slippers. Sliding my feet into them placed me back to my childhood when my mother took fleece slippers from a mothballed chest and lovingly placed them on my feet. She created a comfort zone that involved the softness of fleece, the warmth of the slipper and the smell of mothballs. Sixty-five years later, putting on slippers still helps me reduce stress.

What is “Comfort?”

“Comfort” food, events, sights, odors, tastes and objects derive their stress-busting ability from past associations. I associate the feeling my slippers create with a caring mother. The smell of basil in my garden with my friend’s father as he stirred a pot of spaghetti sauce for three hours. The touch of a figure I carved with a wonderful week at a woodcarving class in North Carolina.

Caregivers often neglect their needs because of the demands of caring for a loved one. I suggested to a caregiver the anxiety created by caring for her husband 24/7 was destroying her competence. She replied, “I don’t have any options. I’m with him all day and night. The only respite I get is once a month when my daughter comes to visit for three days.”

Why Many Stress-Reduction Activities Don’t Work

We think of stress reduction as requiring time—sometimes an unrealistic amount given the needs of our loved one.

For example, transportation to a yoga class may require thirty minutes going and coming, in addition to the sixty minutes of class times. The stress reduction through reading may require more time than is available, or walking around the block may be impossible if no one can watch your husband.

Comfort Zones—Instantaneous Stress Reduction

What happens when there is neither time nor money to assist in stress reduction?

Enter Comfort Zones; an instantaneous way of reducing stress through the power of memories. Memories are complex. Rarely is the mental picture of them limited to isolated items or events.

For example, your memory of watching the world series was probably not stored in your mind objectively as a game with rules. To a Met’s fan hearing someone talk about a significant play by the Royals that ended the Met’s hope of a championship, will recall the emotions she felt as her team made the final out.

How to Create Comfort Zones

We can use these same phenomena—associative memories—to achieve a bit of relief when time doesn’t allow for the usual stress-reduction activities. Create a list of visions, smells, touches, sounds, or tastes that bring back comforting memories. Use these as triggers to reduce your level of stress throughout the day when time doesn’t allow for more extensive releases.

For me, the smell of tomato rice soup brings back memories of returning from playing in the snow and my mother serving me her special Campbell’s concoction.

Listening to any Dylan song puts me back in a smoke-filled apartment late at night in college discussing the “weightier” matters of the world. When I knead dough, wonderful images of my father appear doing the same movements when he was a baker seventy years ago.

Asssociative memories fill our lives with comforting images. Identify those that are positive and recreate them daily even if it’s just for a few minutes. They are especially useful during those times when you don’t believe you can go on any longer.

Think of “comfort zones” as a way of widening a hole at the bottom of an anxiety bucket. Allow more to leave through the hole than comes in from the top and the bucket won’t overflow—we hope.

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