Written by Doug S., MA, MSW, LCSW
- Learning what zones we are experiencing can help us understand what to do with our anxiety.
- The Green Zone can contain anxiety but it is not defined by it. We feel relatively centered and joyful.
- The Gray Zone is characterized by the onset of feeling overwhelmed. We can learn to skirt major problems by good psychological tools.
- The Red Zone is all consuming but we are not doomed to be stuck here forever. That is its great lie.
- Compassionate mindfulness is a great tool to learn how to embody the Anchored Self, the place of freedom to be who you really are in the moment.
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Here is a model that acts like a metaphor to help us understand the at least three different “zones” of Anxiety. The “target” is a set of three concentric areas with the “bulls eye” labeled as the “red zone.” We then have the “gray zone,” surrounded by the “green zone.”
The Green Zone:
The Green Zone is our comfort zone where we feel relatively calm, normal, and able to deal with every day issues. When we feel our best in the Green Zone, we feel connected to purpose and possess the perspective that our lives have meaning and what we are doing has some level of meaning, too. This doesn’t mean that we won’t feel some anxiety, stress, or down times while in the Green Zone. These emotions, or filters of perceiving the moment’s catalysts, are a normal part of just being a human being. We don’t judge the emotions as bad or negative. Instead, we deal with them appropriately, learning what they have to teach us, and use our mental toolkit to keep our perspective, purpose, and self-esteem.
The Gray Zone:
The Gray Zone is like stepping in a muddy, wet, sloshy patch into which you ran while traversing a nice green lawn. Your pace slows and you scout out directions to take to avoid the worst parts. Yep, you’re already dirty so there’s no avoiding that. Now you apply a laser-like focus to get out of the mess and avoid the flood in the middle.
In the Gray Zone, we not only feel anxiety but we begin to lose perspective. There are too many irons in the fire and we begin to feel overwhelmed. In this energetic “place,” we need to have fear but instead let us become hyper aware of our thoughts and the present moment. Good cognitive behavior techniques and mindfulness can really be helpful in skirting the Red Zone, that muddied middle.
The Red Zone:
The Red Zone is like a kind of energetic black hole. We find ourselves “possessed” by the high intensity of our anxieties and it feels all consuming. Eckhart Tolle calls this the “pain body.” He writes:
Once the pain body has taken you over, you want more pain. You become a victim or a perpetrator. You want to inflict pain, or you want to suffer pain, or both. There isn’t really much difference between the two. You are not conscious of this, of course, and will vehemently claim that you do not want pain. But look closely and you will that your thinking and behavior are designed to keep the pain going, for yourself and others. (1)
The great lie of the Red Zone is that we really believe that we will never be able to get out of it. Its “voices” scream out:
- You are a bad person!
- You will never be normal!
- There is no escaping this pain!
- You are disconnected, alone, alienated, and totally misunderstood!
- You will fail now like you have failed in the past!
- Your future is dried up!
- You have no purpose!
These “screams” are accusatory by nature and they come from our Floating Selves when they are being tossed around by the negative gales of emotions. We need to remember that we ARE NOT our Floating Selves! Our true selves are the Anchored Selves, which we can “drop down into” and become compassionate witnesses to our Floating Selves, which in the Red Zone, are infested by “pain bodies.”
Falling Into the Anchored Self
We don’t realize it when stuck in the Red Zone, but turning things around can be surprisingly easy. Remember, while in the Red Zone, our Floating Selves will lie to us and tell us that we are forever doomed to the chaos that free falling into perceived meaninglessness brings.
Tool #2. Bring mindful compassion into your awareness. Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is the Floating Self. Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it – don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of “the one who observes,” the silent watcher. The silent watcher is your Anchored Self.
Now that you have accepted your Floating Self’s lies and neediness in the Red Zone, you intentionally forgive it. Bring compassion towards your Floating Self and flood it with the kind of love you would to a friend, family member, or child who is hurting. This acceptance, forgiving, and loving releases the strong grip the pain bodies have on your Floating Self. They “pop off,” as it were; they cannot withstand the light of your compassionate awareness.
If you are earnest and intentional with this powerful tool, you will immediate gain some mental space. It may not be a whole lot, but it is enough! Don’t think about the mental space, just recognize that it is there. Bring gratitude into the new detached state of mind.
Tool #3. From this new foundation of space, make a decision! What shall you decide? You have this power to re-engage your life situation with whatever attitude you choose. Here are some simple suggestions:
- Write a to-do list and start focusing on one thing at a time.
- Go for a walk or run, 20 minutes minimum will help the body and mind reset.
- Write a journal entry about your feelings. Getting them down on paper is hugely therapeutic.
- Write a letter (or email) to someone to express your gratitude for being in your life.
- Write a letter (or email) to someone who needs to hear boundaries from you.
- Reach out to someone and risk being vulnerable with them by sharing your current struggles. We do not have to carry our burdens alone!