Do you ever feel as though your emotions get the best of you? Your spouse says something that pushes a button and you can feel your heart rate go up. You immediately feel hot or cold – or maybe both. Phrases like “my stomach dropped” or “my heart jumped into my throat” become all too real and you are on edge.

When that happens, and your emotions are in charge, it can seem impossible to regain control and calm yourself down.

But good news! It is possible!

We can learn to navigate our heightened emotions and strengthen our emotional muscles in order to become more resilient in those moments. The science of neuroplasticity has shown that you can actually train your mind to bounce back from situations that normally trigger you so that you are in the driver’s seat, not your emotions.

This resilience – this ability to “bounce back” – is what experts refer to as “emotional intelligence.”

It is not something that we’re naturally good at or born with; it’s a skill like any other that’s learned, that can mature and which can be improved. The benefits of becoming emotionally intelligent go beyond your own mental and emotional health – this skill will also make all the difference in your marriage.

What is emotional intelligence? 

According to Psychology Today, “emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.”

People who are emotionally intelligent are:

  1. Aware of and able to accurately identify their emotions
  2. Capable of using their emotions to think through and solve problems
  3. Able to manage and regulate their own emotions, and help others do the same

On the flipside, people who have low emotional intelligence are:

  1. Unable to put words to what they’re feeling
  2. Often stuck in their emotions and feel “trapped” by their emotional state
  3. Incapable of processing what they’re feeling in order to reach a state of emotional stability; tend to be reactive1

Those who struggle with managing their emotions and feel “trapped” are often stuck in limbic system responses.

Judith E. Glaser discusses this concept in her book Conversational Intelligence. “When we are out to win at all costs, we operate out of the part of the limbic brain called the amygdala,” she writes. “This part is hardwired along with the well-developed instincts of fight, flight, freeze or appease, located in the primitive brain.”

She goes on to explain that when the amygdala is activated, “our brains lock down and we are no longer open to influence.”

As an emotionally intelligent person, though, your awareness of your own emotions and ability to self-regulate enables you to take steps out of this lockdown and into a healthier state of mind.

This will be especially helpful when you are stuck in conflict with your spouse or something comes up in which you feel triggered. While it’s difficult to stop yourself from spiralling once you feel your buttons pushed, learning to become aware of your emotions and having the right tools available to care for yourself in that moment will enable you to recover much sooner.

Understanding The Stoplight Approach

In working with her own adopted children, Cherilyn Orr developed what’s now known as The Stoplight Approach. Based on research into child development and behaviour management, Orr helps parents equip their children to understand their emotions by using the universal language of the traffic light.

Interestingly, in their work with adults and couples in distress, Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling team has found that The Stoplight Approach is a valuable tool for those of us who have never been shown how to regulate our emotions.

Using The Stoplight Approach Orr identifies three brain states: red, yellow and green. Throughout the day, our brains will be in one of these three states and different situations we encounter – in the physical world outside of us or within our own minds and spirits – will move us through these three states.

The three brain states

The red brain is what Glaser talks about – the fight, flight, freeze or appease mode. In this reactive state, you are unable to listen, to concentrate or to think clearly, which means you are not able to come to any resolution – especially if you are in a conflict with your spouse. The red brain is you in survival mode with only self-protection as your main concern.

The yellow brain is a step away from red brain where you may not feel like you’re in survival mode, but you do feel disconnected. You may be tired and stressed, you may be hungry, or you may just feel what some people call ennui. While you may not be paralyzed by your limbic system, you are still not functioning with 100 per cent of your brain. Your worry, listlessness or annoyance makes you vulnerable to quickly slipping into red brain.

For most of us, the majority of our days are spent in yellow brain. While this may not be as bad as living constantly in red brain, we are created to enjoy our lives so much more – and it’s difficult to do this when we’re in this yellow brain state.

The goal, then, is to reach green brain. Green brain is the state in which you are using all of your brain to fully experience life, focus on your tasks, cooperate with your spouse and find healthy solutions to the problems you face. When we are in green brain, we feel safe, secure and content. Green brain enables us to thoughtfully see the world around us – and the emotions within us – with perspective.

Getting from red brain to green brain

Simply put, emotional intelligence is our ability to go from red brain and yellow brain back to green brain. It’s not that emotionally intelligent people are never in red brain or yellow brain; it’s that they have high emotional resilience that allows them to bounce back to green brain.

As with any skill, this is one that takes practice. Before anything else, you need to learn to identify what you’re feeling.

In Focus on the Family Canada’s Marriage Enrichment program, marriage therapists Wayne Reed and Vicki Hooper give couples a list of feeling words that go beyond the standard “mad, sad and glad.” Start to think about other words that you could use to more accurately identify what you’re feeling.

Instead of “I feel disgusted,” try saying, “I feel disrespected.” Or instead of “I feel crushed,” you could say, “I feel disappointed.” By focusing in on the language we use to label our emotions, we’re better able to uncover the root cause of what we’re feeling.

For example, if instead of saying “I feel sad,” you said, “I feel exhausted,” you’ve already labelled a potential cause – stress. Maybe you need to slow down on social engagements or ease back at work.

In addition to improving your emotional literacy, you also need to be able to identify your state. Think about the last time you were in red brain and write down some things you were feeling. Did you start to perspire? Did you get a headache? Did you feel a pang in your stomach or short of breath? Understanding your physical reactions to when you’re feeling emotionally unsafe will equip you to catch yourself before you go too far into red brain.

Then do the same exercise for yellow brain and green brain. Once you know how you feel in each of those states, you can start to think of personal steps you can take to move from red to yellow to green.

5 steps of the Care Cycle

In the Marriage Enrichment program, our marriage therapists help couples develop their emotional intelligence by teaching them the five steps of what’s called the Care Cycle:

1. Aware

First, learn to be aware of when you are feeling something. You may not know what the feeling is, but you can sense your body responding to a difficult emotion. When this happens, give yourself space to find comfort, clarity and objectivity – what Reed and Hooper refer to as “taking space to care for my heart.” This may require you to physically remove yourself from what’s triggering you – such as a conflict with your spouse – and giving yourself at least 20 minutes to calm down.

Orr suggests finding what’s unique to you to calm down. It may be focusing on your breathing, drinking water, going for a jog, taking a shower or having a cup of tea. Find a healthy outlet that calms you and allows you to step away from the extremity of red brain.

2. Accept

“If my heart is wounded, it’s my job to care for it,” Hooper explains. “The thought of looking beneath the surface at our hearts can be frightening, especially if we are used to ignoring our feelings. But God has given us feelings as information – like our own early warning system; they signal to us that something important is going on with us and we need to attend to it. If we ignore them, we will find other things in our life are affected.” 

When we accept what we’re feeling is true and real, and then courageously look at the cause, we can start to move from red brain to yellow brain. Orr suggests looking at unmet needs (such as hunger or fatigue) and unresolved problems that may be keeping us in our limbic system. She also encourages people that red brain and yellow brain are not bad – they’re alarms that warn us something is wrong. As Hooper explains, it’s like our check engine light is coming on. If we stay in red and yellow brain without accepting and addressing the root causes of our emotions, then we are at risk of causing harm to ourselves and to those we love. 

3. Allow

As Christians, we have the unique gift of a personal God who is attentive and desires us to live healthy, holy lives. In Scripture we’re told to submit ourselves to God (James 4:7), to come near to him and he’ll come near to us (James 4:8), and to humble ourselves before God and he’ll lift us up (James 4:10).

God is for you and desires to be invited into what you’re feeling. This step of allowing God into our process is incredibly valuable. It may even be helpful for you to have the following verse saved on your phone or posted in your home to help you remember this crucial step:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24)

4. Attend

Now that you’ve identified what you’re feeling, you’re aware of it, you’ve accepted it and you’ve allowed God into it, you can start to regulate your emotions. Ask yourself if this feeling is familiar, if you’re amplifying it or distorting it. Pray and ask God to reveal to you what the truth of the situation is, not what you perceive the truth to be.

This process of perceived truth – especially when we’re in a state of red or yellow brain – is what Glaser refers to as making “movies” or “stories.”

“When what we say, what we hear, and what we mean are not in agreement,” she writes, “we retreat into our heads and make up stories that help us reconcile the discrepancies.” Using an example of a difficult relationship she had with a corporate client, she writes:

“In the moment, I was caught in a dozen strong and confusing feelings that clogged our conversations and caused me more fear. Unable to put words to how I was feeling, I went inside my own mind and made more movies. These movies were about how wrong he was, about how closed he was, about how unable I was to move him forward and therefore perhaps not a good coach after all.”

Part of attending is being able to set those perceived truths aside in order to take ownership for our part in what we’re feeling and take steps to be more resilient in moving toward green brain.

5. Act 

This process of personal reflection and self-regulation is what enables us to connect with others. If you are not emotionally intelligent and you are constantly stuck in a state of red or yellow brain, you are incapable of intimately connecting with your spouse. When you are able to go through this Care Cycle process and choose to respond instead of react, you can show empathy and improve your relationship with your spouse.

Self-care is caring for your own heart so that you can re-engage with your spouse, Hooper and Reed explain. 

Taking ownership of your emotional well-being and continually finding ways to develop your emotional intelligence enables you to be a whole person. As Reed and Hooper tell couples, a marriage is only as healthy as the two people in it. The sooner you take responsibility for your emotional health – as well as your mental, physical and spiritual health – the sooner you will be able to encourage your spouse to meet their own needs and develop their own emotional intelligence. 

If you are interested in attending one of our Marriage Enrichment Conferences and Retreats, you can learn more at

If you and your spouse are struggling and feel like you could benefit from more focused counselling with our marriage therapists trained to deal with crisis situations, visit to learn about our Hope Restored marriage counselling retreats. 

Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

1 “Emotional Intelligence,” Psychology Today, Accessed January 9, 2020

© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.  

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