Social Skills post ABI – this tool is a game changer!

Utilizing the Real-Life Conversation Skills Video Course to Navigate Comfort, Stretch and Panic Zones in Social Skills Development for Individual with ABI

Comfort, Stretch and Panic Model

One helpful model for understanding personal growth within the context of social skills development post ABI is Karl Rohnke’s Comfort, Stretch and Panic model, which was developed based on the Yerkes-Dodson law. This law posits that peak performance happens when people experience a moderate amount of pressure.

According to this model, when we either fail to challenge ourselves or become overloaded with pressure, our performance and chance of success will decline. With this in mind, the key to social success is to approach social opportunities that will push us without taking us all the way into a place of panic. For those with acquired brain injury (ABI), this model can become a helpful tool for reintegrating socially back into society. 

The Real-Life Conversation Skills Video Course (part of the Real-Life Social Skills Academy) is a key growth tool for this process, providing users post ABI with concrete, step-by-step breakdowns of conversation skills, video examples of these skills being role-played as well as clearly defined challenges for practicing in the real world.

What do each of these zones look like?

Comfort Zone

social skills waving hello

The comfort zone is characterized by familiar activities or social interactions that are routine for us. Examples might include: waving hello to a long-time neighbor, talking with family members around the dinner table or joking around with familiar classmates/friends in the cafeteria. 

These interactions may not be the simplest to an outside observer, but they are ones that we have done many times and are confident and comfortable with. We feel calm and competent when we are engaged in these activities or enter conversations with these people. 

For most of us, comfort zone activities and interactions will form most of our day to day lives. This is typical and expected. Comfort zone interactions are safe, reassuring and recharging. They are very important for our mental health and well-being. However, it can be a red flag when we find ourselves or our student rarely or never venturing outside of our comfort zone socially. 

Unfortunately, for many of those with ABI, even activities that previously fell in the comfort zone may become more challenging. Their comfort zone may “shift” and a new level of social expectations may need to be established. 

Stretch Zone

social skills post ABI

When we are in our stretch zone, we challenge ourselves with activities or interactions that are outside of our usual comfort zone. For instance, we may go up to a less familiar neighbor and say “hi” or we might sit with a new group of students in the school lunchroom. 

Many of the challenges in the Real-Life Conversation Skills Video Course are geared to provide stretch zone opportunities for users, in order to gradually push themselves into new social territory. 

In the stretch zone, we do not feel panicked and overwhelmed, but are able to step up to the challenge. We may even find a rush of extra motivation and enthusiasm. Often, we need to practice developing a mindset of persistence prior to engaging with activities or interactions that fall within the stretch zone. Otherwise, we may find ourselves bailing out whenever things get a little unfamiliar or uncomfortable. This can be especially true for those with ABI, as activities or social interactions that were once fun and simple may become much more difficult and exhausting.

Panic Zone

When we are in the panic zone, we become completely overloaded and overwhelmed. We are swamped with fear and may enter a fight, flight, or freeze mode. We run on high alert. Being in this zone for extended periods of time often negatively impacts of sleep, mental health, and energy levels. 

When we find ourselves feeling this way in a situation, it may mean that we overloaded our current skill capacity. It would likely be best if we take a step back. Socially, this may mean that we entered a situation or interaction that we were not ready for, and as a result feel trapped or overwhelmed. Social anxiety often manifests because we placed ourselves into difficult or unfamiliar social situations without enough practice or skill-building beforehand. 

The Real-Life Conversation Skills Video Course aims to help those who take the course gain knowledge and watch examples of various conversation skills being utilized with the aim of reducing anxiety in users to help them be more successful in social situations when they venture into the real world. The course is one tool that can help users with ABI avoid entering the panic zone in various social settings, as they will have already seen examples of how to navigate these situations and have a step-by-step plan for how to approach others. 

Check out some of our Brain Injury resources here!

Factors to Consider

Social Skill/Practice Level

Reflect on how much we have practiced various social skills prior to entering real life situations. Role-playing, video modeling, practicing with more familiar friends/family, (all of which are components of the Real-Life Conversation Skills Video Course), etc., can all be helpful tools to prepare us for stretch zone type social interactions. Social skills groups can also be helpful, safe, semi-structured places to grow in our social skills with peers, especially when we are relearning skills following an ABI. Many cities even have specific ABI support groups that one can join. 

Know Our Own Personality

Consider our own personality type. Are we more introverted or extroverted? Do we do better in group situations or 1:1 conversation? How has our personality changed post-ABI? What types of topics would we enjoy talking about with others? The more we know about ourselves, our own strengths and personality type, the more confident we can be entering into a new social situation.

How Are We Feeling Today?

Are we well-rested or fatigued? Are we feeling extra anxious today for some reason? How is our mood? Mood and fatigue levels can be heavily impacted by ABI, and these are all important emotional factors to consider before jumping into a stretch zone social activity.

How Challenging is the Social Situation?

Also, it is important to be aware of the complexity of the social situation. This will vary for every person and is often based on the previously discussed factors listed above. Of course, no single video course or peer group can prepare someone for every complex social situation they might encounter. Nonetheless, the Real-Life Social Skills Video Course does incorporate a variety of common situations that one may encounter in real life. The course is geared to be realistic and aimed for a target audience of older students and adults who may have had an ABI – avoiding many of the “kiddy” trappings of other social skills-focused curriculums. 

And of course, it is important to remember that what is incredibly challenging for one person may be routine for someone else. In general, though, being around fewer familiar people and within a larger group will be more challenging. Specific work or school groups can also have special rules that are more difficult to navigate. The Real-Life Conversation Skills Video Course will help you learn or relearn many of these hidden rules. 

Keys to Finding the Stretch Zone

1) Be aware of when you’re stuck in a social comfort zone and be willing to challenge yourself. 

2) Have a social skills coach, therapist, friend or other person in our lives as an outside perspective to provide us with encouragement to push ourselves forward socially.

3) Order the Real-Life Conversation Skills Video Course or a similar course in order to relearn, review and gain helpful skills in advance of entering more challenging real life situations. 

4) Start out small and take baby steps. Try one new social opportunity each month – whether joining a new ABI support group, signing up for voice lessons, taking a community art class or anything else that is new and intriguing. The possibilities are endless. Start with something small and build up. For instance, your first stretch zone activity would likely involve meeting one new person or a small group rather than presenting a speech to an audience of 500 people. 



social skills ABI video courseJohn Williamson, M.S., CCC-SLP

Owner, Lead Therapist at the Social Skills Laboratory, PLLC

Certified: PROMPT Level 1, SCERTS Model, Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) Level 1, Pro-ACT, Non-Violent Crisis Prevention (CPI), LSVT, Youth Mental Health First Aid, Positive Discipline, LiPS by Lindamood Bell

Trainings: Social Thinking: Taste of Our Providers’ Conference, Unraveling the Mysteries of Social Communication Skills for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Using iTechnology as Evidence-Based Practice to Meet the Learning and Behavioral Needs for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder,  Social Thinking: Informal Dynamic Assessment and Core Treatment Strategies, AAC Across the Lifespan, Sensory Processing Disorder Symposium: Evidence-Based Practice – Evaluation and Treatment of SPD, Innovative Aphasia, AAC in Medical Settings, Special Education Law in Washington State and many more.

About Me:
I have extensive experience working with children across a wide age range with a variety of communication-related challenges. Previously, I worked at Lakeside Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment (now I-CAN) and at Children’s Institute for Learning Differences (CHILD) before starting my own private practice.

I am originally from Washington State and got my master’s degree in Clinical Speech-Language Pathology from Northern Arizona University before moving back to the Pacific Northwest. I also have my Certificate of Clinical Competency from the American Speech-Hearing Association (ASHA).

I am passionate about working with students and adults who have social skills challenges as well as other speech and language-related difficulties!


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