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Challenge Zone

The ‘challenge zone’ is a term we can use with clients to help them explore and consider committed action – to determine when they have gone too far or are not pushing themselves enough.

What usually happens is that we might work with our clients and establish short-term goals and actions to achieve. However, when the clients return we find they have over-committed, or they have pushed too far and avoided all the difficulties and discomfort (experiential avoidance), or perhaps the goals were uninspiring and they did nothing.

To avoid this scenario we develop our clients’ understanding of the types of choices they can make, how to make them, what will be beneficial and what will lead to avoiding or withdrawing from the committed action. The challenge zone helps us educate our clients about these choices. 

We aim to set up a new behaviour and continue to support the client in practising their awareness and acceptance skills. We want our clients to see what happens if they put themselves in a specific context for a period and become confident in holding and managing discomfort. 

The challenge zone graph has three zones of intensity, representing the difficulty of the committed action:

  • Too hard (anxiety about the action leads to withdrawal or experiential avoidance)

  • Too easy (not enough of a challenge – may be too close to what the client is already doing and achieving, and not requiring enough effort. This is often evident through disengagement with the action.) 

  • Challenge – the committed action is outside the client’s comfort zone but not too far out that it is unrealistic to expect success. 

The size or boundaries of each zone will depend on the client, just as the perceived difficulty of the committed action will depend on the client and his or her willingness to accept the level of discomfort associated with that action at that time.

Brianna’s mother called me in the hope I could help Brianna, who due to agoraphobic difficulties had been unable to leave her home for about four years. Caring family members brought food and other items were brought to her home. Brianna had reached a point that she wanted help and was willing to take action.

I built rapport, then began with committed actions. The first action I suggested was too easy – I asked that she touch the front door handle. Then we went into the challenge zone. I asked her to grab the front door handle and turn it. She did this a couple of times, although she was exhibiting mounting symptoms of anxiety: sweaty palms, accelerated heartbeat. I asked her to take the handle all the way down, then release it, then progressed to opening the door a few centimetres, closing it, and stepping back. As Brianna’s confidence rose, the challenge level had to increase.

Over the space of 60 minutes Brianna succeeded in opening the door further, then stepping outside and returning quickly, then progressively further until she walked to the letterbox – for the first time in four years. In the months following, working on committed action in the service of freedom (her value), Brianna was able to talk walks around her neighbourhood, catch buses, meet friends for coffee and go to social events.

We need the client to keep moving forward, so we need to keep checking in about where the actions sit on the graph. One day, walking out onto the verandah might fall into the ‘challenging’ zone; the next day it might be ‘too hard’, before returning to a realistic challenge a day or so later. Keep checking and keep setting realistic challenges and you will help your client achieve very worthwhile, committed, results.


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