How Anxiety in Poker Gets You to the Learning Zone

Why is it so hard to get out of your comfort zone?

Why is it necessary to do so?

And how can poker help us in that?

Everyone always says we should learn how to get out of our comfort zone. Disrupt your routine.

A little stress is good for you, and so on. So everyone agrees. But what exactly is that “comfort zone” they’re all talking about?

Imagine Something You Do All the Time

The most scientific explanation - which is also the one I like the most - is based on anxiety levels.

Leo Margets
No risk, no reward.

Our “comfort zone” includes every behavior that allows us to keep our anxiety levels both low and stable.

Imagine something that you do all the time, like cooking dinner, picking up your partner from work or grinding on four tables.

These are all activities you’re used to. They don’t create any kind of anxiety or discomfort. That’s why they’re within your comfort zone.

People often talk about “getting out of our comfort zone” to try new things, but actually any activity that raises our anxiety levels is technically out of our comfort zone.

If hailing a taxi in front of the airport - something that’s quite common - is making you nervous because there’s a lot of traffic, or if you qualify for an EPT when you’re only used to playing smaller tournaments, you are effectively out of your comfort zone.

And although anxiety is generally not desirable, in small quantities it can be beneficial. A pinch of it is enough (that “good stress” that everyone is talking about) to boost your abilities and focus to reach that next level you might be aiming for.

Learning Zone, Panic Zone

In the example of our grinder who qualifies for an EPT, the adrenaline rush will probably make him extra-motivated, more focused and give him better reflexes.

When a task is extremely simple our efficiency improves proportionally to our stress levels.

Leo Margets
Watch out for panic zone, though.

However, if the task is more complex, stress only helps you up to a certain point. After that, anxiety actually makes you less efficient.

You know me. I’m always comparing poker to real life, but that’s because it works so well!

Take our grinder for example. He’s used to playing, say, on four NL100 6 max tables. He’s got his little routine, good volume.

He’s completely at ease; it’s his comfort zone. If he decides to add one or two tables, the added stress could allow him to give the best of himself, to be more focused and alert, until he’s finally comfortable at that level.

His productivity will increase and so will his volume. This is called the “Learning Zone."

However, if he suddenly tries to add four tables instead, his stress levels might rise too high and prevent him from adapting to that new situation.

This is called the “Panic zone".

Managing Uncertainty in Poker

Most of the anxiety we feel when we’re out of our comfort zone is caused by uncertainty. Heating up a pizza presents no challenges whatsoever because you’re used to doing it.

Leo Margets
Wary of unknown.

On the other hand driving for the first time ever, skydiving, a first day at work or playing a live tournament for the first time ... this is the unknown.

That’s why anxiety increases. What’s familiar is comfortable but we're wary of the unknown.

This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view: what’s familiar is safe. Your brain knows you’ve tried it before and it turned out fine and that it’s safe to do it again.

When you try something new, however, whether it’s playing more tables, playing at the next level or anything else, it requires more effort and the brain isn’t always willing to make that effort.

That’s why it’s always easier to stick to old habits when we’re tired or down.

Novelty Makes the Dopamine Skyrocket

To sum it all up it’s definitely a good thing to be able to get out of your comfort zone -- as long as you do it in a controlled manner.

It can:

Help us grow: When you combine anxiety and good results, you can achieve personal growth. That’s why such performances as finishing a marathon or climbing a mountain give us a great feeling of satisfaction and boost our self-confidence.

Allow you to expand your comfort zone: If your comfort zone is quite restricted or if you feel that you’re not fully taking advantage of all the possibilities the world has to offer, forcing yourself to get out of your comfort zone from time to time will allow you to expand your comfort zone little by little, as well as the scope of your activities.

Leo Margets
Believe in the Dopamine.

Make us discover new things and learn: Novelty makes the Dopamine skyrocket in your brain. Dopamine’s main effect is to make us yearn for a reward, which is even stronger with novelty.

If you’re interested here’s a test that allows you to calculate the area of your comfort zone.

And remember: If we’re too comfortable, we’re not productive. And if we’re not comfortable enough, we’re not productive either.

The key is to find the right balance between stress and comfort. And once you’ve adapted you can say you have successfully got out of your comfort zone!

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