A few weeks ago, a box arrived. A large cardboard box. Inside was a giant, fleecy, faux sheepskin cushion with arms, designed to cradle you as you lie back into its soft embrace. I’ve nicknamed it ‘My Boyfriend’, as every time I sink back into it (him?) a smile immediately appears on my face, like a happy cat.
‘My Boyfriend’ is the latest purchase in a long line of things designed to provide me and my home with maximum comfort. A yoga bolster cushion and lavender eye pillow. Cashmere socks. The softest bed linen I can find (this is a constant quest). As Jane Austen said: “There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.”
But what actually is comfort? The dictionary defines the noun as ‘a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint’ and the verb as ‘to ease the grief or distress of’, which makes me wonder whether comfort is actually about the absence of discomfort. Whenever I watch a historical film or TV drama, I frequently get distracted from the plot by the widespread domestic discomfort that’s usually accompanying it. My brain gives a running commentary of how uncomfortable the sleeping wellness arrangements look, how cold everyone seems, how scratchy those heavy clothes must be, what gagworthy smells must hit you around every corner. Discomfort is a character that gets top billing, a villain I’d very much run from.
My need for comfort is now a family meme. If my husband comes home and sees me wearing my ‘cloud clothes’ (the softest fleece jogging bottoms and a warm woollen cardigan), he knows my soul needs soothing. Likewise, when we talk about watching ‘something yellow’ on TV, it’s shorthand for The Simpsons or a Simpsons-like programme – familiar, funny, easy, the perfect shows to kick off your shoes to and relax when you’re feeling a bit spent and just need to zone out.
My youngest son shares my need for comfort, too, although his comes from a different place – sensory processing issues as part of his autism diagnosis. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain has trouble responding to the information we receive through our five senses, and can either respond too much or not enough to this input. As well as autism, it can occur alongside other neurodiversities, too, such as dyspraxia and dyslexia, or on its own.
Do you need to get out of your comfort zone?
I don’t have a diagnosis (and no basis for which to think I need one) so my curiosity around what my comfort-seeking might mean led me to psychotherapist Helena Lewis (onroutehealth.co.uk). “We are programmed to seek comfort. Our comfort zones help us feel safe, secure and loved and this is important for everyone,” she says.
So what are the benefits of staying in your comfort zone? Helena says: “Comfort can make us feel grounded. Think of it as a base to return to when things can get a little overwhelming, a place to regenerate and refresh, helping to protect us from whatever is going on around us emotionally, mentally and physically.” That’s definitely true for me in my fluffy cloud palace.
But is there any benefit to leaving my comfort zone? Should I be shedding my soft clothes? Helena explains, “Being either comfortable or uncomfortable can have a huge influence on our physiology and nervous system, and can alter our thought patterns and behaviours. When we are comfortable, we tend to take things for granted, our effort may decrease and we may stop challenging ourselves. The opposite is true when we’re uncomfortable: although we may feel stressed, anxious, on high alert, emotional and unsettled, we’re also more likely to make changes, different decisions or do things that are impulsive and out of character. Neurologically, we will push against being uncomfortable, automatically seeking comfort. However, comfort can also prevent growth and development.”
Too much comfort turns us into mashed potato and marshmallows, then, so it’s important to ensure that there is some discomfort in our lives. From major life events to politics to PMT, I’d argue that discomfort is impossible to avoid, hence creating a comforting haven to retreat to at the end of the day is unlikely to derail our personal growth. But why does the definition of comfort vary from person to person?
Helena explains: “As a human race, we all have different things that can make us feel comfortable. Comfort is built into us, and it grows with us as an individual. Comfort can be born from experiences, memories and feelings relating to the individual. However, the feelings that we experience can be similar, such as warmth, happiness, safety and calm. These are chemical reactions to what we are experiencing, so feelings are more universal.”
So are there any universal comforts we all share? “Yes. Basic physical components such as being fed, clothed and out of physical danger are fairly universal. Comfort can come in different forms. We can all share these same experiences, but may not find them universally comforting. Or, even if we do, it may be for different reasons, and different emotions may be attached.”
Soothing ourselves is necessarily a very personal pursuit, although I believe there are a few things we all find comforting and they often relate to how mothers comfort crying babies – physical closeness, warmth, gentle sounds and movement. Others can be completely unique. I asked around on Instagram to see what less common comforts people enjoy. Esther from Devon finds comfort in “making nice tidy spreadsheets with lovely formulas which are way more complicated than necessary,” while Victoria from Portsmouth seeks solace in “lying in bed at night in the winter with the window open, with a hot water bottle. So lovely!”. Alice from Bristol is comforted by particular seasons: “I find autumn and especially winter a real comfort. I think it has something to do with the weather being more predictable and people around me having less expectation of what can be achieved. It’s definitely my most productive time of year. I like the contrast of the cold outside and the warmth inside. It’s such a comfort to be inside and then exhilarating to be out.” And perhaps most esoteric of all, Laura from Nottingham finds comfort in “the sound of football on the TV. It reminds me of Match of the Day on a Sunday morning at home when I was younger.”
All of which just goes to show that what comforts one person may be uncomfortable for another (Match of the Day certainly isn’t in my comfort zone). I’ll stick to The Simpsons and stroking my cats, soft sweaters and nesting at home with ‘My Boyfriend’.
How to create a comfort library
Build your most comfortable self out of these sensory ingredients – like a bespoke perfume, this is a recipe just for you. Tick which ones bring you comfort and pledge to seek them out more often, or keep handy for when you’re feeling down. Combine more than one for extra comfort and sensory pleasure. Add your own to these lists too.
- Stroking pets
- Kneading bread, stirring risotto
- Massage – full body or foot rub
- Heavy blankets
- Shawls and scarves
- Soft bed linen, clean on
- (Faux) sheepskin slippers
- Jersey pyjamas
- Scarves and snoods
- Hot water bottles
- Hot showers, warm baths, cold swims
- A favourite hoodie
- Clean hair
- Songs that remind you of happy times
- The opening bars of a great film or TV show
- Singing in the shower
- Guided meditations
- Audio books and podcasts
- Electric fan
- Beautiful music
- A ticking clock
- Family photos
- Beautiful rooftop views
- Favourite films
- Fairy lights
- Colours that you find soothing
- A vase of flowers
- Children’s drawings
- The view of home coming back from holiday
- Fresh flowers
- Essential oil diffuser
- Lavender eye mask
- Baking bread
- A loved one’s neck
- Coffee brewing
- Scented candles
- For nostalgia: the foods of childhood – jelly, tinned peaches, potato waffles, macaroni cheese and so many more
- For temperature: warm drinks like toddies and hot chocolate (sipped from a favourite mug), soup and mashed potatoes
- For texture (or lack thereof): stewed apple and custard, milkshakes, scrambled egg, rice pudding or beans on toast
- For sweetness: chocolate, pastry
3 ways to build your own comfort zone
- For us, comfort food is something that we turn to when we need reassurance. Discover why comfort food makes us happy and brings back memories, plus healthy comfort food recipes from the likes of Gizzi Erskine and Nina Olsson.
- Looking to build more positive habits? Have a go at our self-care challenge from 2020, which was created by author, yoga teacher and psychologist Suzy Reading.
- Meditation is a great way to unwind and can lower your stress levels. Learn how to make your own meditation space at home with Caroline Rowland.
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 35. Featured image by Unsplash/Leighann Blackwood.