On a trip to Mexico a few years ago, I was walking from one building to another when I saw a creature off in the distance that looked like a horse. Curious but unbothered, I continued my approach. As I got closer though, I realized I was actually about 20 feet away from a very large cougar.

The cougar looked directly at me, and I looked at the cougar. My mind went blank, and my body began to move on its own. Without thought I began to slowly, quietly step backwards toward a nearby building. Only once I safely closed the door behind me did I start shaking and fully registering what had just happened.  

This is exactly what happens when we’re in the red zone. Your partner comes to you with a question or concern—“Did you forget to pick up the groceries?” or “Why didn’t you tell me my sister called and wanted me to call her back right away?”—and suddenly, to your brain, they’re the cougar.

Our neurobiological reaction to perceived threats (physical or psychological) is to enter a state of fight or flight. Our heart rate spikes, our muscles tighten, and our focus narrows. That narrowed focus is the critical piece here: As the cougar approaches, I don’t wonder why the cougar is there. I don’t register if it appears to be young or old, perceive the beauty of its fur coat, or consider whether it’s actually likely to attack me. I am not thinking at all. I am fully in fight-or-flight. 

While this response helped our ancestors escape real physical dangers, in today’s world it can make it hard to navigate stressful conversations with anything other than lashing out or defensiveness. Our ability to see the big picture and the details vanish when we’re in this state, as do any of those non-native communication techniques we read about on the internet that one time.

Think of the human brain as being divided into different parts. There’s the modern, more developed part of the brain that’s able to handle complex ideas and emotions, perceive nuance, and process new information within the broader context. Then there’s the older part of the brain, which is sometimes referred to as reptilian. When this more primitive part of the brain takes over, all inputs boil down to one question: Are you going to eat me, or am I going to eat you? 

There is no creativity. There is no empathy. There is no problem-solving. There is only fighting, or escape.  

That’s the red zone. 

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