A scheduling error was made. The doctor’s appointment that the patient had waited six months to attend did not exist. The supervisor tried to help with rescheduling, but the patient was irritable and uncooperative.

A co-worker struggling with personal issues was slow to respond to a colleague’s email. A few hours later, a second email was received from the colleague saying, “As I said in my previous email, you need to get me this information today!”

A customer, who had to wait for an extended period of time for assistance, berates the service provider. The verbal attack was focused not only on the perceived poor service but also on the character of the service provider.

Does it seem like more people have a short fuse lately? On a regular occurrence, we hear on the news about someone whose offensive behavior resulted in being kicked off a flight or a disgruntled customer causing a scene. You may have noticed people-including yourself- at work or at home are not as easy going as they used to be.

Enter the Red Zone

So what is happening? I believe people are in the Red Zone.

What is the psychological Red Zone? It occurs when people experience high levels of distress, which is the negative component of stress. Distress entails any emotion you don't want: sadness, anger, frustration, irritability, anxiety, worry, fear...Sound familiar?

Distress and the red zone

Distress exists on a continuum from zero (no distress at all) to 10 out of 10 (the most distressed you've ever been). The psychological Red Zone happens when people are at a seven out of 10 or higher. And in the Red Zone, we don't always act or think rationally.

What's going on in the Red Zone? Instead of using the frontal lobe to dominate our thinking, in Red Zone, the limbic system tends to hijack our thoughts. The frontal lobe allows us to think rationally, keep things in perspective and control our emotions. It permits us to filter our thoughts and not express reactions impulsively. That is what happens when we have lower levels of distress.

In the Red Zone, however, the limbic system prevails. The limbic system is in charge of fight-or-flight reactions. And it is that fight-focus that we are seeing a lot more of lately. This is demonstrated by arguments, demeaning comments, and unkind gestures, as well as a lack of filtering one’s words and actions.

High stress

Stress levels are at an all-time high for many people. Some people are (often unknowingly) still dealing with the psychological trauma of the pandemic: the unpredictable, uncontrollable, potentially serious nature of what they experienced. Then there are the challenges associated with returning back to a normal that is somehow different than we expected; for example returning to the office after a long period of time has a much harder commute than we remembered. Pile that on top of financial stresses, world events, health issues, relationship strains and so much more. Many people are living in the Red Zone.

When one person is in the Red Zone, it is easier to control the situation. But with so many people functioning in the Red Zone, things get more strained. You may even have noticed yourself acting in ways that are not always consistent with the person who you truly are and want to be. That is exactly what happens in the Red Zone.

So, what can you do to help out when people are in Red Zone to improve the situation? Try these six tips. Whether at work or at home, these can help us all be a little more civil.

1.      Be aware of the Red Zone

Realize that when someone is in the Red Zone, they don't always think or act rationally. As such, trying to guide them with rational advice is usually not successful. Comments such as, “Just calm down” or “what is wrong with you?” will likely add fuel to the fire rather than the desired outcome of de-escalating the other person.

And this makes sense when you consider what is happening with their thinking process. Again, a Red Zone brain tends to function in fight-or-flight mode. It's almost as if the subconscious thinks it is drowning. If you were drowning, you would likely be screaming, flailing, or doing anything you could to try to save yourself. If someone told you to “just calm down,” you most likely would not, but instead stay focused on what you think could save you. What’s more, being told you are wrong when you were in the Red Zone can often result in defending your position even more.

2.      Use the power of empathy

So, what can you do when someone is acting out in the Red Zone? Use the power of empathy, putting yourself in their shoes. Consider how you would like someone to react when you are in the Red Zone. Giving you grace, not judging you, and offering support would likely be reactions that you would appreciate. That doesn't mean you agree with what they're doing or saying, but rather empathize that they are in the Red Zone and not necessarily acting or thinking rationally.

And empathize with those who may be irritating you. Consider, aside from the negative perspective that you may have about that person right now, what else might be contributing to their actions? Sure, it is easy to blame their actions on them being lazy or disrespectful or intentionally unkind. However, if you take a step back, you may also realize that they are functioning in the Red Zone.

3.      Have perspective: don’t personalize

It can be easy to personalize when other people are in a bad mood. That personalization can come in the form of feeling like the other person is attacking you, and or by absorbing their negative energy. Neither of those is helpful to you or the situation.

So, when someone is acting out, try not to interpret it as an attack on your worth. Instead, see it as the other person being in the Red Zone. And offer them empathy we talked about above, as well as just giving them space.

What's more, take steps not to let others’ negative mood cause you to go into the Red Zone. It may be helpful take a break, go for a walk come get outside, listen to an upbeat song. While negativity can be contagious, you can control your own energy.

4.      Take a break

A component of Red Zone behavior includes impulsivity, that is saying or doing something without thinking about the consequences. Have you ever interacted with someone who had too much to drink who did or said something that they regretted the next morning? Most likely. While people in the Red Zone are not actually intoxicated, their thinking is, in a way, similarly impaired.

Now, we are not always aware when we ourselves are in the Red Zone. As such, having a rule where you do not respond when you are feeling high levels of distress is a good guideline by which to live. Instead of sharing your perspective, take a step back. You may choose to write down what you're thinking or share it with a neutral party. Refrain from communicating it to the other person until your level of distress is at a three out of 10 or lower. This is also a good time to go for a walk or a jog, distract yourself by watching funny videos, or doing anything that decreases your distress and is fun for you.

5.      Pretend a camera is recording your every move

Consider how you would interact with this person if you knew that a camera was recording your every move. How would you want to show up as you interact with others? With kindness? With grace? With empathy and understanding? By giving them some space? By giving them the benefit of the doubt? Sometimes pretending a camera is recording your every move can help you gain some perspective and allow you to be the person who you truly want to be.

6.      Apologize if you acted unkindly

Everyone gets in the Red Zone sometimes. And if you have acted in a way that, upon reflection, you are not too proud of, it is important to make amends. You cannot go back in time and undo what was done, but you can apologize and take accountability for your actions.

In full disclosure, that antidote at the beginning of this article was actually about me. Yes, I am human and go into the Red Zone sometimes. A few weeks ago, I was having an extremely stressful day and already nearing the Red Zone when I found out that the appointment I had been waiting for, for over six months, was not in the system, and I would need to wait even longer to get in to see the doctor for a concerning health issue. When the supervisor called to apologize and help get me scheduled, I was difficult and irritable. I felt completely justified at the time. However, once I was out of Red Zone, I realized that I had, in fact, been in the wrong. The next morning, I called the supervisor to apologize for my behavior and take full accountability for my actions. While it didn't undo my less-than-stellar behavior the day before, the supervisor did express appreciation for my apology. We cannot be perfect, but we can take accountability for our actions.

So, try these six steps to help improve a situation rather than contribute to its negativity. Realize that each one of us has the power to not only control our own reactions but also help others when they are in the Red Zone.


Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo is a Licensed Practicing Psychologist with a Ph.D. in Psychology and a Master's degree in Physical Therapy, and the authority on how to crush your inner critic so that you can live a life of purpose, fulfillment and True Success™. She’s America’s most trusted celebrity psychologist with over 100 national media interviews. She writes for Combined Insurance in an effort to help educate readers, but her medical opinions and advice are for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for visiting your doctor.