Just One Thing: Leave the Red Zone

By Rick Hanson | April 4, 2012 | 8 comments

Frazzled? Rick Hanson offers tips for calming down.

We’re pleased to present the latest installment of Dr. Rick Hanson’s Greater Good blog, featuring posts from his Just One Thing (JOT) newsletter, which offers simple practices designed to bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.

There I was, 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.

How?

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.

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About The Author

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, an Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center, and the author of the best-selling book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.

His Greater Good blog features posts from Just One Thing (JOT), his free newsletter offering a simple practice each week to bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind.

  

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Sorry, I just love this line “It’s like training a wild mustang to become a saddle horse”

Very good analogy there.

Justin Barbeck | 5:52 am, May 20, 2012 | Link

 

Thanks, I really appreciate your tips and I can’t agree more that it’s not so easy to temper my emotions and sometimes it’s almost impossible, although I’m trying hard. But often, in some situations the stress is so much, that I even don’t remember to try to suppress it. Once I’ve heard someone saying, and remembered these words, that strong emotions (both positive and negative) raise the stress level significantly, which in the long term can affect our well-being, and maintaining firmness and calmness is the key to longevity.

Diyan | 5:40 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

 

Diyan, I appreciate your comments and want to add
one of my own. Actually, there is good research
that energizing positive emotions - called “vitality
affects” - have particularly beneficial effects on
long-term health and thus longevity. Of couse,
sustained extremes of exuberance bordering on
mania are debilitating, but that is rarely a concern
since emotional states (distinct from moods) are
fairly short-lived. An openness to and gentle
encouragement of the causes of energized positive
feelings such as joy, hilarity, delight, awe,
passionate love, bliss, fascination, and physical
pleasure have been important sources of my own
healing, well-being, and spiritual growth.

Wishing you the best,

Rick

Rick Hanson | 7:57 am, May 22, 2012 | Link

 

Hello Rick, and thank you for your reply. Of course, there is no doubt that positive feelings have beneficial effect on general health and well-being. What I meant by strong positive emotions (emotional states), was, for example, sudden burst of joy or excitement, but as you’ve stated they are short-lived and aren’t really a concern.

Thanks,
Diyan

Diyan | 1:42 pm, May 23, 2012 | Link

 

Good article and good advice.  Using meditation is
another way to unwind which you concentrate on the
breath in order to calm the mind.  The methods in
the article will definitely be added to the relaxation
methods used during a stressful day.  Thank you for
helping keep me out of the red.

David Brayton | 10:37 am, June 14, 2012 | Link

 

I have been taking this advice for over a month since I bookmarked this page, and I have to say that for me, it’s actually helping.  Like the author said, these approaches don’t always work.  But if you can curb the anxiety 75% of the time, well then, you’re off to a great start.

Josh Harland | 8:47 pm, August 19, 2012 | Link

 

Josh, thanks for your comment. You’re right, few if
any methods work all the time. But if we keep at it
and try different things, something usually works.

Warm wishes,

Rick

Rick Hanson | 6:17 am, August 20, 2012 | Link

 

Good article and good advice.  Using meditation is
another way to unwind which you concentrate on the

lulu | 2:24 am, October 12, 2012 | Link

 
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