Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo delivers the keynote address during the opening session of the MMA Annual Meeting & Trade Show on Jan. 20.

In order for organizations to be able to change and grow, their people must first reduce their own distress levels during these challenging times, noted psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo said during the 44th MMA Annual Meeting & Trade Show in Boston.

Lombardo, the author of several books including “Get Out of the Red Zone,” gave the keynote address during the MMA conference’s Jan. 20 Opening Session. She said too many people are living with toxic levels of stress — living in the “Red Zone” — a situation worsened by the pandemic and economic concerns.

“If you want to create a community that’s truly open to things like diversity and change, then you have got to get out of the Red Zone,” Lombardo said. “Because when they’re in the Red Zone, they cannot see any other perspective but their own. And in the Red Zone, it’s very tough to solve problems because people are so stuck on what’s wrong, they can’t figure out what’s right.”

Called the “Head Coach for Happiness” by former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, Lombardo has written several books on happiness, perfectionism and stress, and has appeared on television shows including “Today” and “Fox Business.” During her talk, she explained the effects of toxic stress and offered advice on how to break that cycle.

People enter the Red Zone when their distress level ranks seven or higher on a scale of zero to 10, she said. Indicators can include unwanted emotions, unwanted behaviors such as procrastination, or symptoms like headaches and stomach problems.

While the Red Zone helped our cave-dwelling ancestors avoid death in the wild, in modern times it narrows our focus to predominantly negative thoughts, she said. Each year, the Red Zone costs companies more than $350 billion through absenteeism, unfocused work, lack of motivation, health care costs, leadership problems and turnover.

In contrast, minds that operate in the Green Zone make greater use of the brain’s frontal lobe, which allows people to engage in executive functioning, problem solving and creativity. In the Green Zone, people approach situations more realistically, with greater resilience and confidence, she said. Organizations operating in the Green Zone see a 31% increase in productivity. Engagement and leadership also improve when people find their way out of Red Zone distress.

“No one is themselves when they’re in the Red Zone,” she said. “You’re not the parent you want to be, you’re not the partner you want to be, you’re not the community leader you want to be when you are in the Red Zone. We have to stay more in the Green Zone in order to be who we want to be.”

People can find the Green Zone even while facing enormous adversity, Lombardo said. She recalled her work at a trauma center, where an electrician named Roger, after losing both arms in an accident, said, “I’m so grateful that I’m still here.” She also spoke of her husband, who was diagnosed nine years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, but who still cracks jokes through the speech device he operates with eye movements.

“Sometimes we can’t change the situation, but we can always change our emotional reaction to it,” she said.

Lombardo urged those in the Red Zone to remember the acronym HELM as a way out:
• Halt all activity involving the mouth — don’t say or consume anything you will regret
• Exercise
• Laughter
• Music (especially playlists that help you get out of the distress mode)

Lombardo uses a different acronym for staying out of the Red Zone, RPM:
• Rewire the brain
• Prime the mind
• Mindfulness

To rewire the brain, she suggested changing lenses to a more positive viewpoint, and doing something positive three times a day, in five-minute periods — activities such as meditation, journaling or self care.

Priming the mind, she said, could involve adopting more uplifting morning routines and identifying three traits in an admired person and then applying one of those traits.

Mindfulness can involve focusing on what’s going well, she said.

Municipal officials asked Lombardo about applying these principles in their city and town halls, such as when a crowd is stuck in the Red Zone during a public meeting. Lombardo said it’s great if officials can educate people about the Red Zone, but they should never tell speakers to “calm down” or “stop freaking out.” Instead, they should help reorient the public’s view of the issue that’s causing distress.

“Focusing on what they want to see as opposed to what’s wrong — even that will help change their mindset,” Lombardo said. “So asking those questions to pull it out — “What’s going well? What do you want to see? What do you want to create? — will actually help them use different parts of their brain and help them get out of The Red Zone.”

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