“Our emotions are great messengers, but awful masters.”
Whenever I introduce this topic in a seminar or session, an important question inevitably follows: “If our emotions don’t master us, why does it feel like they do in the moment when we experience them?” If you struggle with regulating intense emotions, you may wonder how to feel your emotions without getting engulfed by them. Others may avoid intense emotions altogether for fear that they will overwhelm them. For those of us who want a peek behind the curtain of emotional awareness and expression, let’s take a moment to consider that perhaps we are uniquely wired to embody our feelings and respond to emotional stressors in a healthy way without avoiding them or being overwhelmed by them.
Although emotional reactions can feel abstract at times, our strongest, most visceral reactions actually follow a specific pattern and chain of events in our minds and bodies. As we begin to understand this process, we can truly embody our emotional experiences in healthy ways without a fear of being overpowered by them. Psalm 139:13-14 reminds us that God “formed our inmost being” and we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. This unique formation extends beyond our physical traits and encompasses our emotional tolerance as well.
Did you know that, as humans, we each have a very individualized and unique emotional capacity for how we respond to life’s stressors? Just like we have different physical pain tolerances, we each hold a specific window of tolerance for emotional regulation. This emotional capacity is shaped by both genetic and environmental factors. Understanding our individual capacity or “window of tolerance” for emotional stressors can put context into why you feel like you’re often losing your cool or why your spouse seems to emotionally “disappear” when things get heated. If you’re one of the many individuals who feel your brain is constantly on overdrive, the idea that you can learn to regulate your emotional responses spells relief. It can be utterly exhausting to over-think every possible scenario. If that’s you, I’m here to offer you some reassurance.
Unbeknownst to many of us, our brains were formed by God with a threat-detection system to keep us alive, so they constantly scan the environment for potential threats. This is one reason we tend to naturally focus on the negative aspects of things more than the positive, because our brains believe if we can eliminate any possible threat, we will be safe. Some threats are legitimate, like a car rushing toward us or our child running into the street, but others are anticipated future threats (“What if they laugh at me?”) or remnants of previous threats (a flashback stirred on by a familiar smell or triggering word). If you find yourself constantly on-edge, it may be time to take a look at whether your threat-detection system is over-firing.
So what can we do about this? Gaining awareness of our triggers is key. One way we do this is to simplify our emotional capacity for stress into three zones: the green zone (stability and peace), the red zone (chaos, rage and fear) and the blue zone (disengagement, zoning out, depression).
When we are in the green zone, our nervous systems are regulated, we can face into challenges and discomfort with confidence. We are centered in the present moment and making decisions with wisdom. We are able to love and forgive freely in the green zone because we don’t feel threatened or insecure.
Whenever we start moving out of the present moment into the “what-if” or “what could have been” and get stuck there, we enter into the red zone. This is the place where repressed anger and anxiety live. We get revved up, our hearts start racing, our breathing becomes shallow, and we can sometimes shake or become dizzy. Even if there is no threat in the present moment, we feel with our whole being as if there is! We are no longer running our emotions, our emotions are running us. It’s in this place we say or do things that are hurtful to others and detrimental to our own personal long-term goals.
Some individuals feel comfortable in the red zone. Chaos has become their norm. Green zone living for these individuals feels boring or uncomfortable– they are constantly waiting for the sky to fall. For these individuals conditioned in the red zone, living without a constant adrenaline rush is anxiety-provoking in and of itself. These individuals seem to create chaos wherever they go—not intentionally, but because it feels familiar.
Others are frightened of the red zone. Perhaps they grew up with a parent who often let out their red-zone anger on the child instead of self-regulating. Individuals who have learned that any kind of emotional expression is “weakness” tend to adamantly avoid the red zone. When they feel overwhelmed, these individuals disconnect from their reality. It feels safer to “check-out” than to “lash out” so they avoid, placate or completely dissociate. This would be indicative of a blue zone response.
This blue zone response hurts relationships as well because encountering healthy conflict and staying engaged during the process builds intimacy and trust over time. Staying present during discomfort communicates, “You can bring your whole self to the table and I won’t leave (physically or emotionally.)” Escaping into the blue zone may feel like it provides temporary relief, but living there creates disconnection.
Over time, we can start to identify when we are beginning to enter into the red or blue zone. We can educate our spouses and close friends about these zones of regulation and give them permission to let us know when they start to see red (or blue) flags. We can reach out to them when we start to feel our familiar flushed face or rolling of the eyes. In humility, we may ask them to help us co-regulate by either taking a break (a healthy response to the red zone) or calmly facing whatever we are tempted to run from (a healthy response to the blue zone). Ironically, the more we practice identifying our green zone and becoming aware of the times we are beginning to move out of it, the longer we will be able to stay within a state of emotional regulation over time.
With all this talk of zones and emotions, I want to end with a clarification for those who were taught to bypass their emotions by simply “surrendering” them to God. Regulating our emotions isn’t taking the reigns away from God. Instead, it’s being faithful with the tools and resources He’s given us. A deep excitement arises when we recognize that the Holy Spirit works through avenues we can consciously choose to strengthen. In fact, brain imaging scans have proven that prayerful meditation has been proven to help us stay in the green zone. As Pastor Chuck says, “Scripture and science can be a hand and glove experience.” Gaining new knowledge about the way God made our brains is one way to honor His creation.