Anger, rage, fury, exasperation. Welcome to the Red Zone. This emotional lane needs a big ‘Do Not Enter’ sign warning us of the danger ahead. We have all trespassed more than once, and the consequences are rarely positive.
Positive emotion is the spice of life and the raison d’être for much of what we do and what gives us pleasure. But on the other hand, stress, anxiety, and negative emotions are not merely unpleasant. They are obstacles to happiness, success, and ultimate fulfillment. In extreme cases, relationships and work environments become toxic, suffocating, and dilemmas of resentment and miscommunication. Dreams and desires remain unrealized. That’s the Red Zone. You are not alone, and there is a way out. You just need to get out of your way.
“The Red Zone is not a place but rather a head space. You are in the Red Zone when you experience high-stress levels, or what psychologists call distress. In the Red Zone, we tend to use a different part of our brain to process information,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo.
Coined by Shaquille O’Neal as his “Head Coach for Happiness,” Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo is America’s most trusted psychologist. With over 100 media appearances, Dr. E (as her clients affectionately call her) has become a fixture on popular television shows, including Good Morning, America, The Today Show, and The Doctors. With enthusiasm and a wide smile that makes Christie Brinkley look like a sour puss, Dr. E’s true appeal is that she is not only relatable but that she lives and speaks from real-life experience.
Dr. E’s latest book, Get Out of the Red Zone, is her highly anticipated follow-up to Better Than Perfect. Conveyed in accessible morsels of information and advice rather than a murky, impenetrable screed, Get Out of the Red Zone is everything you love about Dr. E delivered in a compact handbook. It is your guide to the what and whys the Red Zone is a barricade to happiness and how to dismantle its obstacle brick by brick.
We at Gurus were fortunate to talk with Dr. E in depth about recognizing the symptoms of Red Zone thinking and how we can stop the self-defeating triggers that lead us into a labyrinth of negative emotions.
Gurus: If there is a Red Zone, there must be a Green Zone. Tell us about that first.
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo: So, in the Green Zone, we’re using more of our frontal lobe, the structure that differentiates us from other animals. It allows us to engage in executive functioning, problem-solving, and perspective taking. We can see the good and the not-so-good. This is where we can have confidence; ‘I believe in myself, even though I’m not perfect.’ This is where we can have resilience; ‘Times are tough, but I know they get better.’
Gurus: What happens as we move into the Red Zone?
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo: As we go up on the distress scale, we go from seeing positives to negatives. When we get into the Red Zone of a seven above on a scale of 1-10, we are engaged in what we call ‘negative filtering.’ One of the reasons why we’re doing that is because our limbic system is more activated when we’re in the red zone — that’s the fight or flight.
Gurus: So, our thinking and behavior become more primal?
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo: From an evolutionary standpoint, if our cave ancestors heard some wrestling in the bushes and thought it was nothing, they probably wouldn’t live another day, right? Instead, they went into the Red Zone, focused on what was wrong, and took care of it – fight or flight. Unfortunately, many people are in the Red Zone and stay there, so they aren’t processing information rationally.
Gurus: Why is this topic more relevant now than ever?
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo: Stress levels are at an all-time high for everyone, both adults and children. We need to help people understand what goes on and to have a language to help ourselves and others get out of the Red Zone.
Gurus: How can this language help us recognize the symptoms?
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo: Once we are aware we’re in the Red Zone, it can allow us to take steps to get out. It gives us a language and the tools to control our minds instead of letting our minds control us.
Gurus: What specific actions can one do to think differently?
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo: When the Red Zone starts to take over, the first thing to do is be aware that you’re getting into the Red Zone. Three common red flags indicate when this happens are: Number one is emotions we don’t want. When you notice intense emotions of anger, frustration, sadness, worry, guilt, shame, overwhelmed, helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. The second is physiological. Where does stress show up in your body? For some, it’s gastrointestinal. For others, it’s hot flashes, sweating, headaches, neck pain, etc. The third is engaging in behaviors that you don’t want. For example, speaking in a harsh tone, yelling, or procrastinating on something important. So, when you use these red flags to let you know you’re getting into the Red Zone, you can take the steps to either get out or to get to a lower place on the distress scale.
Gurus: Are people angrier in general and less in control these days?
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo: I would say absolutely. I think there are a lot of factors that are going into this. Hopefully more controlled, the pandemic induced a sense of helplessness that is undoubtedly still contributing to many mental health issues. Social justice issues, mass shootings, inflation, war, and a pending recession are causing a lot of stress for people. We know from decades of research that learned helplessness could put us into the Red Zone.
Gurus: What are ways to overcome circumstances that are not easy to exit, such as coworkers and family?
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo: The key is to identify your triggers. Everyone has triggers that put them in the Red Zone. Once you identify those triggers, you want to deactivate those triggers. It’s only a trigger if we let it.
Gurus: Can you talk about the HELM principle?
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo: Rational thinking is hard to apply in the “Red Zone.” So, I say, ‘Grab stress by the HELM.'” It’s an acronym:
‘H’ is for halt. Halt all movement in your mouth because that is when we tend to say things we regret. And don’t put anything in your mouth because this is when we consume things we regret.
‘E’ is for exercise. Any movement of your body. Sit-ups, push-ups, jumping on the bed, a brisk walk, running up and down the stairs. It releases biochemicals that get you out of the Red Zone.
‘L’ is for laughter. You can say to someone, ‘Before we continue this conversation, let me take some time.’ Then watch YouTube clips of your favorite SNL sketch, comedy, or cat videos.
‘M’ is for music. Music can have a very powerful impact on our emotions. So, I recommend my clients to create a ‘get out of the Red Zone’ playlist so that all they have to do is hit play. And by the way, if you hit play and then dance around, you get two of them. It’s even better.
Gurus: Finally, what can you tell yourself if you have a Red Zone episode and feel ashamed of your actions or behavior?
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo: You want to tell your inner self, ‘I am human. I was in the Red Zone. It doesn’t excuse my behavior. I am responsible for my behavior.’ Forgiving yourself, identifying what put you in the Red Zone so that you can take steps to prevent it in the future, and apologizing to whomever you need to with sincerity and without blaming them.
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