How Traffic Lights Can Help You Manage Your Emotions


Building Self-Control


Sometimes it’s easy to get swept away by emotions, especially strong emotions like anxiety and anger, and when we do, it can make us feel out of control.

Are you on top of your emotions?

The ability to regulate our emotions is often referred to as self-control, impulse control or anger management. It’s really the ability to regulate your thoughts, then your feelings, then your actions. It’s something we all need to practice; and like all things, some people are naturally more capable in this area, while others need more practice to learn skills to aid their self-control.

Having a framework for self-regulation is a useful tool – and one that can help you make a conscious decision about how you’re feeling and how you can react to any given situation. A traffic light system is a simple and effective example of this. It works like this –

Green (Go) Feelings

Are “good to go” emotions. They’re emotions that are appropriate for all situations, and show control e.g. calm, happy, focused or content. They’re also appropriate feelings for interacting with others (being social), learning and working.

Yellow (Slow down) Feelings

Are “proceed with caution” emotions. In the Yellow Zone, you’re in a heightened state of alertness, but still have some control over your thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Examples of Yellow Feelings are: stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement and confusion.

Red (Stop) Feelings

Are “out of control” emotions. They’re emotions associated with being in an extremely heightened state of alertness, having intense feelings – anger, rage, explosive behaviour, panic, terror, elation – you’re not in control of. In this state, you need to stop and re-gain control.

When you’re able to acknowledge what colour zone you’re in, you can then use strategies to calm down and regain control. Different strategies work for different people, but some examples are: deep breathing, relaxation, taking a break, having a cold drink, talking to someone, asking for help, and exercise.

It’s important to remember that no feelings are ‘bad feelings’, not even anger. What’s important is how you react in heightened states of arousal (i.e. yellow or red zones). Yellow and Red feelings can prompt unhelpful reactions, but if you use the above framework to assess your feelings and reflect on what you can do to be closer to Green, you’ll find you tend to be less reactive and more in control, especially when strong emotions arise.

This framework is based on the Zones of Regulation program which teaches emotion regulation skills.

Juliet is a warm and compassionate registered psychologist with more than 15 years of experience working with children, adolescents, young adults and families. She has a special interest in working with adolescents experiencing depression, anxiety, self-harm, school refusal, self-esteem issues, family breakdown, behavioural difficulties, HSC and school-stress. Her areas of expertise with children include developmental and behavioural difficulties, emotion regulation, parenting and school issues, family breakup, social skill development and friendship issues.


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