This is an excerpt from Heart Education by Deve L. Swaim.
Emotional Fitness Zones
The heart sends us vital information about our health and happiness. Emotional fitness training shows us how to listen to our hearts by becoming aware of our emotional states; it also helps us develop the ability to consciously shift to a healthier zone if we happen to be in a toxic zone. Just as the body is designed to heal itself, emotions can guide us from a condition of stress and disease to a state of peace, health, and compassion. Emotions are important signals that provide information from either inside or outside the body. Emotional fitness training shows us how to use these signals in a helpful and healthy way.
Figure 10.1 illustrates the five emotional fitness zones. As you read about them in this module, take some time with each one to notice which is most familiar to you, and where you tend to spend your time. The purpose of training in the physical heart zones is to elevate your heart rate for improved health and performance. Elevating your heart rate through physical exertion is good for you. An elevated heart rate as a result of emotional stress for extended periods of time, however, is bad for you. The goals of the five physical and emotional zones are different: in the physical zones we want to increase heart rate, and in the emotional zones we want to maintain a lower heart rate.Another way to think of it is that an elevated heart rate in the physical zones indicates positive stress, whereas an elevated heart rate in the emotional zones indicates negative stress.
Zone 1: Safe Zone
Zone 1, the safe zone, gives us energy. It is where we go to recharge our batteries, to calm ourselves, to get peaceful, to refocus our energy. The safe zone is a very personal zone that we design ourselves. For some, zone 1 has a prayerful, or meditative, focus. For others, certain music or sounds of nature create a peaceful inner feeling. A visual memory of a beautiful place, a remembrance of a special moment, or thoughts of compassion toward a loved one can put our hearts at peace. Just as exercise training is one of the best things for the physical heart, a well-developed zone 1 is the greatest gift for the emotional heart.
The color of zone 1 is blue, a calm and soothing color. Some people find this zone hard to achieve because it requires calming the mind and focusing energy internally. This can be difficult to do in a culture filled with busyness and stress.
Time in zone 1 also benefits our metabolic and physical health. Without harmful stress hormones and negative messages from the brain, the body can optimize its metabolism and work to heal itself, which it is designed to do. Many studies have demonstrated that zone 1 activities such as meditation, prayer, deep breathing, and listening to classical music enhance the immune system, reduce the incidence of disease, lower blood pressure, enhance blood chemistry, and generate an overall feeling of well-being.
Zone 2: Productive Zone
Zone 2, the productive zone, includes a range of feelings that should dominate much of our time at work, home, or at play. In this zone, we are getting things done and feeling good about ourselves and our accomplishments. We feel relatively peaceful and focused as we go about our day-to-day responsibilities. In zone 2 we have access to both our emotions and our thoughts.
The color of zone 2 is green. Time in zone 2 facilitates the growth of emotional energy, which we can store in our emotional bank accounts. When we are in zone 2, we can accomplish tasks that require concentration and attention. Spending time in this zone is health enhancing and productive.
Zone 3: Performance Zone
Zone 3, the performance zone, offers all of the benefits of zone 2 in addition to greater focus, concentration, positive intensity, and accomplishment. In zone 3 we strive to achieve peak performance. We are usually in zone 3 when we are doing something we really love, whether at work, at play, or in relationships. Zone 3 accommodates life’s big challenges, but it is not a grueling, stressful, frantic place to be. It is a place of focus and hard work, friendship, play, and love.
The color of zone 3 is yellow, the color of the jersey the leading rider in the Tour de France wears. We are in this zone when we are working hard but feel in the flow, in control of events, and fulfilled. In zone 3 we feel alive in every fiber of our being.
Zone 4: Distress Zone
Zone 4, the distress zone, drains us of energy. This is the zone in which bad stuff starts to happen. Zone 4 is where the fight-or-flight response kicks in—the brain receives the message that life is in danger and the body prepares to fight or run away. It is characterized by feelings of fear, worry, anger, anxiety, depression, overwhelm, guilt, and helplessness. The stress response is triggered in this zone, and physiological changes begin to affect heart rate, blood chemistry, and activity in all the cells and organs. The ability to think clearly declines as the emotions begin to take over. We say and do stupid things when we are in zone 4. We also become much less productive in our work and much more destructive in our relationships.
The color of zone 4 is orange: the color of a warning signal. Our heartbeat tells us when we are in zone 4: as stress hormones pour through the body, heart rate increases by at least 10 beats per minute. Many people in our fast-paced culture are spending far too much time in zone 4, which is definitely hazardous to their health.
Zone 5: Red Zone
Zone 5, the red zone, is a place we never want to go. This is the zone of out-of-control behavior and raw emotion devoid of rational thought. It is characterized by aggression, violence, and hysteria. This is the zone in which abusive and destructive behavior happens. It is highly toxic to the person who is in the zone, as well as anyone else nearby. Zone 5 is the place of domestic violence, irrational and dangerous behavior, and self-destructive activities. Stay out of zone 5, and avoid anyone else who is heading in that direction.
The color of zone 5 is red, the color of danger. Spending time in this zone is toxic and dangerous. Few people who spend time in zone 5 can pull themselves out of it all by themselves. They usually need help from mental health professionals to diagnose the cause of the behavior, as well as prescribe the appropriate treatment.
The field of psychoneuroimmunology (psycho = mind, neuro = nervous system, immunology = the body’s natural ability to defend and heal itself) teaches us about the connection between our thoughts and our bodies. Our emotions and perceptions of what is happening in the world cause our hearts and brains to send messages that stimulate physiological responses in our bodies. Our emotional states trigger reactions in our bodies that affect heart rate, blood chemistry, and the activity of every cell in the body. Our immunity is compromised when we are under stress. Fatigue and stress-related complaints account for a high percentage of all visits to primary care physicians. Remember, stress results from our perception of an external situation that brings about an internal response, and stress is a huge energy drain.
Emotional Fitness Training
Emotional fitness training gives us the tools to take better care of ourselves; it encourages and supports us to be more self-accepting. The motivation to use these tools, however, and to make changes in our lives has to come from us.
Change is difficult because the brain wants to repeat emotions and behaviors that are familiar. This is called homeostasis. Most people, from the place of homeostasis, endlessly repeat mood and behavior patterns even if they are destructive. Changing those patterns can create its own stress, but the good news is that as new behaviors are repeated, they eventually become habits.
The amazing benefits to our health and happiness that come from physical exercise are well documented and widely known, but many people remain sedentary. For many years, 80 percent of the U.S. federal health care budget was spent on lifestyle-related illnesses. It seems incredible that people resist physical activity even though the result is a wide variety of physical illnesses. This resistance to exercise is just one of many examples of the power of the brain to resist change.
Human behavior tends to be motivated by either fear or desire. Desire refers to what we want in our lives, what we feel passionate about, what is truly important to us, and the conditions that bring us happiness and energy. Fear is anything that gets in the way of our desires, the behaviors and thoughts that hold us back.
Another factor of emotional fitness is motivation, which can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation comes from the outside and takes the form of things other people think we should do or would like us to do. Extrinsic motivation can come from family members, teachers, doctors, the media, friends, or cultural values. We can experience a lot of pressure from extrinsic motivation, and sometimes we make changes based on these pressures. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, from an awareness of what is truly important and valuable to us. Changes that result from extrinsic motivation tend to be short-lived because there is not enough desire to fuel the effort to maintain the changes. The passion connected to intrinsic motivation provides the energy to keep us going until the new behavior becomes a habit.
Increased awareness of our own emotional state is the cornerstone of emotional fitness training and leads to all the other benefits. In physical training, we listen to the messages our bodies send to become fitter and avoid injury. If we are exhausted as a result of strenuous training, lack of sleep, or illness, we need to rest. If we have pain or soreness, we need to determine what is causing it and correct the situation. Similarly, our emotions can guide us to greater health and happiness. If we notice that our internal stress level is beginning to elevate, we can take a brief time-out to assess the situation. Sometimes all we need is a few relaxing breaths. At other times, we may need to remove ourselves from a situation to calm down and plan our strategy.
The quickest way to reduce stress and improve mood is to exercise on a regular basis. In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008), Dr. John Ratey presents research that supports the idea that exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health. It is difficult to communicate in words the energy and joy that come from exercise. The bottom line is: the better our physical fitness is, the better our mental and emotional health will be. To be beneficial, however, exercise needs to be regular.
Most people who exercise regularly have training partners who encourage and support them, or even playfully harass them about maintaining their exercise schedule. Exercising with family members or friends can serve a dual purpose of getting support for exercising and spending time with people we care about.