Living in the Green Zone

I recently listened to a webcast with Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author. He spoke of brain change and something that really struck me, the “green zone” and the “red zone”. Ultimately, as he described, when our basic needs are met (including feeling safe, connected/attached to others, and satisfied), we are in the green zone. In other words, our body and brain enjoy rest, peace, love and contentment. When our needs are not met, the brain goes into the red zone, firing up our fight, flight and freeze responses.

Both zones and responses are necessary and important. However, what stood out to me was his comment that the red zone is not meant to be “sustainable.” In other words, being in the red zone, or in survival mode, is supposed to be a fairly brief response to keep us emotionally and physically safe and then we are meant to return to the green zone. To illustrate this point, imagine a startled deer. It freezes when it feels its safety is threatened and then returns to eating and other restful/green zone behaviors once the danger has passed.

However, as Hanson pointed out, modern life is not always conducive to living in the green zone. Instead of experiencing occasional red zone spikes with longer-term green zones, most people are exposed to ongoing moderate stress. The problem with this is that staying in the red (or pink) zone leads to a physical, mental, and emotional breakdown. The green zone gives us time and energy to repair from life’s stressors. Without time for healing and strengthening, the mind and body can be left with a weakened immune system, anger, fear, heartache, feelings of inadequacy and hurt, dissatisfaction, or frustration.

While we are unable to disengage from modern day life and technology, Hanson argues that we can spend most of our time in the green zone where we feel restful, peaceful, content, and loved. To do this, he says we must rewire our brain to take in and notice more of our positive experiences while also calming the body and brain. As things happen, we can stop, pause, perhaps be grateful, and then move on. By internalizing these positive experiences and our ability to recover and be resilient, we are able to experience and move into the green zone more easily after a red-zone experience.

Concrete examples of moving ourselves into the green zone might include taking several slow breaths when we notice our body moving into the red zone (ie. increased heart rate, feeling frazzled, unloved, hurt, or irritated) and calm the mind by focusing on something that makes us feel safe, fulfilled or appreciated. Next, relax tension as best you can. Drink water, put your feet on the ground, eat, and use the restroom to slow down your process. Bring someone (or even a pet) to mind that cares about you or is loving toward you, particularly if you are feeling hurt or unloved. You might also imagine other times when you survived and even thrived after experiencing a difficult or painful red zone experience. The green zone also includes leisure time, investing in relaxing and fulfilling hobbies, and cultivating meaningful relationships.

By noticing when our body is having a red zone response, we can then begin to return to the green zone by intentionally practicing behaviors that are calming and restorative for us, and by spending time that is intentionally restful. In turn, our brain, body, and immune system will thank us as living in the green zone is pertinent for long-term health, longevity, psychological healing, and well-being.

Mental Health and Wellness

Staying mentally fit can be challenging in our stressful, busy lives. Mental health or wellness is defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” It enables us to enjoy life and relationships, and embodies our physical, mental and social well-being. Like most things, our mental health will fluctuate. Circumstances, stressful life events, grief and loss, as well as positive events and relationships certainly will impact how we feel about ourselves and our world. However, we can also make positive choices and engage in behaviors that strengthen and maintain our mental wellness. Following are a few tips to improve and maintain your mental health.


Scientists continue to research and prove the benefits of exercise for both the body and brain. In addition to reducing stress and anxiety by increasing the body’s ability to manage mental tension, exercise also releases endorphins, creating feelings of happiness and even decreasing feelings of depression. There is evidence that for some people, exercise can be just as effective as an antidepressant in treating depression. Additionally, exercise has been shown to prevent cognitive (brain) decline which tends to happen as we age. Finally, working out often helps people sleep better, feel more productive, and improves positive self-image.

Leisure Time

Despite our busy schedules, it is critical for our mental health that we have “down” time. Playtime, hobbies, and rest are critical for all age groups and creates balance to deal with stress and the daily tasks at hand. Taking time to have fun, try new things, read a book, and engage in interesting activities contributes to feeling fulfilled and joyful. Play helps us be the best version of ourselves and creates space for creativity.


Sleep is critical for our bodies to heal and recover. Additionally, it improves our memory and attention, increases our ability to be creative and to perform at our best, helps with weight management, decreases stress, allows us to be more alert, and improves mood while decreasing anxiety and even feelings of depression or being overwhelmed.

Engage in Relationships

Biologically, we are hardwired for connection. Therefore, it is critical that we make time for the important people in our lives and strive for healthy relationships. Much of the way we feel about ourselves and our world is tied to our relationships. Research indicates that strong relationships contribute to living a healthy, happy, and long life. Our significant relationships serve as a platform for sharing our feelings (another important aspect of mental health and wellness), for creating traditions and memories, and for fulfilling our important needs of belonging and feeling loved. Additionally, being involved in community is an important way to feel connected, to give back through volunteer work and doing things for others, and to create a sense of togetherness.

Challenge Yourself

Learning new skills, taking on new things at work, creating fitness goals, or doing things that are out of our comfort zone improves mental fitness while creating a sense of confidence and accomplishment.

Spend Time in Nature

In addition to providing the body with Vitamin D through direct sunlight, research also shows that spending time in nature can boost cognitive function and creativity. Many people also find the great outdoors a space where they feel rejuvenated, more connected to themselves, and to others.

Make Time for Spirituality

Spirituality means different things to everyone, but a study published in the Journal of Religion and Health found spirituality linked with greater mental health. Specifically, they found that increased spirituality increased a sense of oneness and connectedness with the rest of the universe. Other studies show that people who consider themselves spiritual or religious report feeling happier than those that don’t.

Practice Mindfulness/Meditation

Mindfulness, defined by a study in Perspectives on Psychological Science, is “the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment.” Mindfulness meditation is shown to have many benefits including lowering stress, protecting the brain, providing insight, improving performance, emotion regulation, and may even lower depression among other things. For more information, click here.

Seek Help

Life can be difficult and even devastating at times. We all need help at various points in our lives. Dealing with stressors and sharing our experience and feelings with loved ones is an important part of mental health. And, while friends and family members can be a great resource, you also might benefit from the unbiased, professional view of a mental health professional. Should you find yourself in a situation where you or your family member needs support or help, call Austin Family Counseling at 512-298-3381.

Why Counseling?

Despite research that proves the efficacy of counseling, and although we know intellectually that all humans experience struggle and suffering, there is still an unfortunate stigma associated with going to therapy. In our society, it may seem easier (and less stigmatized) to appear as though everything is fine or to numb painful emotions through alcohol or drug use, food, technology, gossip or social media, or to simply “deal with it” on our own. Certainly, it can be difficult to admit that we have a problem or need outside help.

Perhaps when we think of therapy, we think that it is only a place for those with major mental illness or more “serious” problems.  Certainly, those struggling with mental illness or diagnosed disorders benefit from therapy, but so can people working through challenging situations or difficult times in their life. Counseling can offer a powerful resource for individuals and families struggling with a variety of issues including stress, anxiety, depression, transitional issues, career exploration, financial problems, health or diagnosis issues, grief, trauma, getting married or divorce, caregiving, aging, relational struggles, parent-child issues, and more. Following are a few reasons to consider giving counseling a try.

A safe, nonjudgmental space to grow and heal
Unlike your best friend, partner, or family member, a good therapist will maintain a nonjudgmental and accepting attitude regardless of what you say or what your life experiences are. They are there to provide unbiased feedback and ensure that you are heard and that your therapeutic needs are met.

Uninterrupted “me time”
Although our attention is usually divided in many directions, therapy is a place where you can focus strictly on your own needs, desires, goals, and issues, or that of your relationship(s). It is time for personal reflection and growth, to look at what is and isn’t working in your life, to explore your strengths, and to become more insightful about your inner world.

A confidential place to share your experiences and secrets
We all have stories and worries that we are scared to share with those we love because of how they might react should they know. Or, maybe we don’t feel like they would understand or know how to respond. Therapy can offer a confidential place to receive emotional support and talk about those things that are painful, challenging, or that feel “unspeakable”.

Learn tools, heal past losses or experiences, and gain perspective
Counseling can help you become unstuck, look at troubling relationships, deal with unhelpful patterns, and grow in all areas of your life. Whether it is learning how to better ask for what you need or exploring a new career path, therapy can enhance life and improve relationships. As you learn new skills, therapy provides a safe environment in which to practice them and get feedback.

Experience increased joy, richer relationships, and a more meaningful life
Sometimes we become out of balance or need a slight “tune-up.” Whether it is a shift in how we view things or specific behavioral changes that need made individually or within our family/marriage/relationship, counseling can help us make the adjustments that we need to live happier, fuller lives.

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