Leave the Red Zone
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Leave the Red Zone
by: Rick Hanson
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 (see Just One Thing for examples)
– 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.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and Huffington Post, and he is the author of the best-selling Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He writes a weekly newsletter - Just One Thing - that suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.
Published here on: 26-Feb-12