Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (from Random House in October ...Read More
Are you stressed or upset?
Leave the Red Zone.
There I was recently, standing in the shower, my mind darting in different directions about projects in process, frazzled about little tasks backing up, uneasy about a tax record from 2010 we couldn’t find, feeling irritated about being irritable, hurrying to get to work, body keyed up, internal sense of pressure. Not freaked out, not running from an attacker, not suffering a grievous loss, my own troubles tiny in comparison to those of so many others – but still, the needle on my personal stress-o-meter was pegged in the Red Zone.
Then that quiet background knowing in all of us nudged me to cool down, dial back, de-frazzle, take a breath, exhale slowly, repeat, let the skin relax, start getting a sense of center, exhale again, slow the thoughts down, pick one thought of alrightness or goodness and stay with it, exhaling worry about the future, coming into this moment, water beating down, just sensations, calming, mind getting clearer, focusing on what I’ll do this day and knowing that’s all I can do, the body sense of settling down yet again sinking in to make it one bit easier to settle down the next time. Leaving the Red Zone, not all the way to Green, more like Yellow, but no longer even Orange. Whew.
I’m sure you have your own sense of this process. It’s natural to move back and forth between Green and Red, which our ancestors evolved to survive and pass on their genes. Green is the resting state, the home base, of the brain and body, characterized by activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, repair and refueling of bodily systems, and a peaceful, happy, and loving mind. In Green, we are usually benevolent toward ourselves, others, and the world. Then we rev up into Red in order to avoid threats, pursue opportunities, or deal with relationship issues: the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system activates, stress hormones like cortisol course through the bloodstream, and (broadly defined) hatred, greed, and heartache course through the mind. In Red, we’re primed for fear, possessiveness, and aggression. If you’re upset – if you’re anxious, frustrated, irritated, or feeling put down or inadequate – you’re in Red or heading there quickly.
You may have read my characterizations of Green as the Responsive mode of the brain and Red as its Reactive mode. Both modes are natural and necessary.
But there are no innate costs to Green, only benefits, while the benefits of Red (e.g., speed, intensity) are offset by serious costs to well-being, health, and longevity. Mother Nature didn’t care about the costs of Red when most of our primate, hominid, and human ancestors died young.
These days, though, it behooves us center in Green as much as we can – using Green approaches for threats and opportunities – and leave Red as soon as possible. This is the foundation of psychological healing, long-term health, everyday well-being, personal growth, spiritual practice, and a peaceful and widely prosperous world.
In a busy life, each day gives you dozens of opportunities to leave the Red zone and move toward Green. Each time you do this, you gradually strengthen the neural substrates of Green, one synapse at a time.
In order to cope with urgent needs, the body can switch from Green to Red in a heartbeat. Then it takes a while to return to Green since stress hormones need time to metabolize out of your system. Even in Yellow and Orange, the effects and thus the costs of stress activation are present.
So as soon as you notice the needle of your stress-o-meter moving into Yellow and beyond, take action.
In your mind, intend to settle back down. Exhale slowly, twice as long as the inhalation: this helps light up the parasympathetic nervous system. Think of something, anything, that makes you feel safer, more fed and fulfilled, or more appreciated and cared about: focus on these good feelings, stay with them, sense them sinking in. Relax tension in your body as best you can. As you calm a bit, find your priority in whatever situation is stressing you and zero in on the key specific do-able action(s) that is/are needed. Take refuge in knowing that you can only do what you can, that you can only encourage the causes of good things but can’t control the results themselves.
In the world, try to slow down and step back. Speak carefully. Buy yourself some time. Drink some water, get some food, go to the bathroom. Before acting, raise your level of functioning (i.e., move from Red toward Green), the center from which effective action flows. Try not to act from fear, anger, frustration, shame, or a bruised ego. Don’t add logs to the fire. Over time, try to change the environmental (including relationship) conditions that add to your stresses.
These approaches are not a panacea. They don’t always work. It’s like training a wild mustang to become a saddle horse: over and over again, you bring gentleness and firmness, you rein in fear and fire and encourage peaceful ease.
You woo nature and help yourself come home to Green.