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Dr Colman Noctor
VOICES

Extract Colman Noctor's 4-7 Zone - 'it turns out moderation is key'

The psychotherapist shares an extract from his new book, which encourages the reader to sit with their stress, understand it and re-wire their responses.

THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPHS are an introduction to a strategy that will help you to manage your mental fitness, build your resilience levels and hopefully prevent you from ever needing to attend for psychotherapeutic support.

In my work, I have noticed that all the people attending my psychotherapy clinic were doing too much or too little of something or a combination of both. And I found that in most of the advice I was giving to my clients, there was a theme of encouraging them to regain a sense of balance in their lives.

It is common when experiencing difficult or stressful life events to believe that an extreme reaction or response is required. When we are experiencing challenges in our lives, the thought of having to respond to or manage these events is sometimes overwhelming, and so we may choose to ignore the need to make any changes, engaging instead in a state of avoidance.

When I was trying to get an understanding of people’s struggles, I would ask them to rate their experiences or behaviours out of 10. This allowed me to get a sense of the extent of their behaviours and provided me with some insight into their own perspective on the problem. In some cases, it became clear that people were overdoing an aspect of their lives or underdoing another aspect, or a combination of both, which was compounding their difficulties and, in most cases, making the situation worse.

Moderation

What became obvious and predictable was that the people who were coming to see me for help to overcome a psychological challenge in their lives were almost always functioning and rating themselves in the 1–3 or 8–10 zones. Nobody who came to me for help rated themselves as functioning in the 4–7 zone.

I began to realise there was a pattern which suggested that the 1–3 and 8–10 zones could be understood as ‘the danger zones’ when it comes to our mental well-being, by default proving that the 4–7 zone was the optimal zone of psychological and emotional safety.

When you take a step back, it makes sense that the 4–7 zone is the safest place to be. When we are engaging in moderate feelings, thinking and behaviour, we are being rational and therefore least likely to become overwhelmed or disengaged.

Most people who are experiencing emotional distress find themselves becoming overwhelmed and engage in either obsessive rumination or avoidant disengagement. And no matter what the origin for the distress is, when the reaction is extreme it tends not to end well.

Many people who are experiencing distress will see their options as polarised and ask which extreme response they should make. Invariably, my answer is that their response should be somewhere in the middle. In the case of ‘I am unsure whether this relationship is for me and so I feel compelled to either make it the most perfect relationship ever or break up’, the best response is neither of those options.

If we are worried about our child’s academic performance and we wonder, ‘Should I get them a load of grinds, or should we just move to a different school?’, again the response is often neither of these polarised options. It may not be news to many people that the
moderate response is probably the best option and the one we should strive for, but in many cases, we fail to respond that way.

It sounds simple, so why is it so hard? I believe it is because everything about our culture tends to drive us towards excess, and unrealistically inflates our expectations. The narrative of living your best life, being extraordinary and making an impact is driving us to have unrealistic expectations of ourselves, our lives and other people. These wider narratives are normalising excess. Phrases like ‘unlimited’, ‘all-you-can-eat data’, and ‘binge watching’ are pervasive across society, causing us to lose all sense of enough.

Striving for perfection

When we are told that every uncomfortable or undesirable situation can be bypassed by a quick fix, it can leave us feeling intolerant of life’s ups and downs and compelled to try to fix everything. There is an expectation that we should never be bored, tired or unfulfilled, and if we do experience any of these things, then there is a life hack available to overcome them.

These solutions often involve a dramatic gesture that will bring about monumental changes in our lives and inevitably make us ‘happy’. Unfortunately, our emotional lives do not work well with extremes and shortcuts.

The modern-day narrative is driven by the attraction of speed and convenience, and these are not terms that fit well with emotional change. The reality is that life can be difficult sometimes, and uncomfortable emotions are part of the life experience.

The 4-7 Zone- High Res cover Dr Colman Noctor Dr Colman Noctor

They have a purpose, and they need to be managed and negotiated, not bypassed or fixed. If we were to believe the extreme mental health narratives we hear, we would all believe that we have a set of mental disorders that require immediate attention.

However, as I mentioned already, it is important to realise that not all worry is anxiety and not all sadness is depression. Feeling worried and sad over the course of our life’s journey is not only normal and acceptable; it is to be expected. The question is, how do we navigate these experiences successfully?

I believe the 4–7 zone approach is a practical way to help us all to do that, as a strategy aimed at providing us with a template for balance and priority. In a society that normalises excess and encourages us to sweat the small stuff, there has never been more of a need for us to ground ourselves in meaningfulness and solidity. The 4–7 zone will assist us to remind ourselves of our need to recalibrate, achieve a sense of equilibrium and reground ourselves in the aspects of our lives that matter to us.

Achieving moderation

The first mechanism for achieving a sense of enough is the 4–7 zone. The beauty of this technique is its simplicity, and there are no apps, guides or gadgets needed. A pen and a piece of paper might help, but that’s it.

The 4–7 zone simply asks you to periodically take a moment out of your day and rate different aspects of your life between 1 and 10.

Over recent years, we have gotten used to self-testing. Throughout the pandemic, we regularly completed temperature checks and antigen tests to make sure we were physically OK. The same principle was not afforded to our mental well-being, which was also under threat in those times. It was over the course of the pandemic that I got to see the 4–7 zone in action in my own life, and it was my ‘go-to’ strategy for navigating the pandemic and maintaining a sense of balance, perspective and equilibrium in a period loaded with extremes.

This 4–7 zone was something that a number of my clients referenced as a ‘game changer’ in terms of managing their mental anguish too. It was this feedback that convinced me that this was something worth sharing with others. If something so simple could have such an extensive impact on people who were struggling so much, then surely it could be something that could be useful to many others. I believe that the 4–7 zone can be incorporated into our lives to assist us in our work–life balance, diet and exercise habits, parenting approaches, social activity and intimate relationships.

How does the 4-7 zone work?

Take a moment to consider any aspect of your life that you are finding challenging or are struggling to negotiate. Then consider the intensity or magnitude of your response to it and rate it out of 10.

If, for example, you are going through a stressful period of your life and you rate yourself in the 1–3 or 8–10 zones of any area of your life, then you have to ask if this response is appropriate or proportionate to this circumstance.

Perhaps you are struggling with a sense of being overwhelmed with the demands of your life. When you complete the mental health check, you realise that you are not getting enough sleep (2/10), you are not getting enough exercise (1/10), and your degree of worry and rumination about the stresses in your life is too high (9/10). This quick self-assessment will reveal the problem areas that may be compounding your experience of stress.

Then you need to reflect on how long you have been in these 1–3 or 8–10 zones and try to estimate how long this might need to continue. Some life events are high-octane events and require a 1–3 or 8–10 response. However, if you realise that you have been in the outer zones for a longer period than you should be, or if you realise that the situation does not merit that level of reaction, then you may need to do something to change that.

Often when we feel overwhelmed we react by blaming either ourselves or other people entirely. This is one of the biggest mistakes we can make, because most life circumstances are difficult because of a combination of factors, and very rarely just one.

So, rating our own evaluation or response to stress is important. If we are stressed because of events in our work life, we may tend to apportion all the blame to ourselves and conclude that we are feeling stressed because we are not good enough.

Alternatively, we may apportion all of the blame to other people and feel victimised, therefore believing that everyone is against us. Both responses are in the danger zones of 1–3 or 8–10 and are unhelpful. If your self-criticism is 9–10, then this is an unhealthy response and needs to be addressed, and if your sense of responsibility for the challenges you are experiencing is in the 1–3 zone, this too is equally unhelpful. Despite
not always being responsible for the events that occur in our lives, we are always responsible for how we react and respond to them. Therefore, where life stress is inevitable and unavoidable, allowing this stress to impact on our sleep, exercise and self-criticism is utterly influenced by our own responses.

We will inevitably find ourselves in the 1–3 or 8–10 zones because that’s just what life does. The objective of the 4–7 zone is not about avoiding entry into the 1–3 or 8–10 zones. That would be impossible. Life events inevitably cause us to find ourselves there. The important thing is to be able to identify this early and assess whether this is a proportionate reaction to the event and whether the length of time we are spending in the 1–3 or 8–10 zones is sustainable. We then need to try to find a way of getting back to the 4–7 zone as soon as we can.

Problems don’t arise because we enter the 1–3 or 8–10 zones; they arise when we stay in these zones for too long. If you can manage to spend most of your time in the 4–7 zone – the mid-range of scores – in terms of your work–life balance, family life, diet, exercise and sleep, and if you aim to ‘respond or react’ to life events within the 4–7 zone, then the likelihood is that from a mental well-being point of view, all will be well.

How does this differ from other self-help strategies?

In recent years, we have seen a big movement towards strategies such as mindfulness and meditation when it comes to maintaining our mental well-being. While I can appreciate that many people have found these approaches transformative in terms of their mental health, they are not for everyone.

I have been asked many times why I don’t promote mindfulness-based approaches more in my work and writing, and the simple reason is that they don’t seem to work for me. Any time I have mentioned this to my colleagues, who incidentally are fans of mindfulness methods, they just tell me I am not doing it right. This may be true, but it doesn’t alter the fact that I still don’t find them useful.

I have tried these interventions before, but I find that the need to be still and to focus intensely on a sound or sensation makes me more rather than less anxious. I am not a good person for stillness at the best of times. I am always active, and I describe myself as an ‘active relaxer’. My way of unwinding or switching off is by playing tag rugby or five-a-side football.

During these times, I am thinking about nothing else other than the game. The trials and tribulations of my life are not in my head when I am playing a sport, and so for me, it is the perfect distraction.

While I believe we all need some distraction, I have become concerned that almost all of the mental health interventions being promoted at the moment are solely distraction-based strategies. Of course, distraction offers us a temporary and much-needed respite from our overactive, worried minds, but I would question at what point we need to cease distracting ourselves and address the origin of our distress.

Some distraction-based interventions seem to inadvertently promote the idea that we should never need to experience emotional pain or discomfort. While I advocate for active relaxation strategies that temporarily remove us from the dimension of worry, they are not a long-term solutions. Interventions need to also incorporate some instruction on how to deal with or address the source of our stress.

This is where the 4–7 zone is different. The 4–7 zone works off the principle that worry and stress and emotional discomfort is normal. They are our mind’s way of communicating that something in our life is out of balance. They are necessary. It is important to try to not let these emotions get out of hand and dominate our experiences, but it is equally unwise to dismiss, ignore or try to distract ourselves away from them indefinitely.

Sometimes we need to tune in to emotional distress and try to interpret what it might be indicating to us. More often than not, emotional distress is made worse by how we think about it, so making alterations to how we think about it is key to resolving it.

The way we tend to think about emotional distress is part of a faulty feedback loop in our brains that makes emotional distress worse. For example, if you get anxious about a pending social engagement, your brain will give you a signal that you are anxious. This often triggers a negative thinking cycle that says, ‘I shouldn’t feel anxious. I am such a loser for feeling anxious.’

Now you are spiralling into a state of being anxious about being anxious. This is having a knock-on effect on your self-worth. You may begin to convince yourself that there’s something wrong with you. ‘Why am I such a loser? Why am I feeling anxious about something so simple? Nobody else gets anxious about these things.’ Now you are self-diagnosing that feeling anxious means that you have a deficit or that there is something wrong with you. You begin to focus on what you lack. The spiralling rumination and overthinking are creating more and more anxiety. Distraction-based initiatives could encourage you to focus on something small, like a sound or a sensation, and this grounding might interrupt the rumination loop and allow you to feel calmer. Until the
next time.

The 4–7 zone encourages you to take a moment when you start to feel anxious. It does not advocate a distraction away from the source of your worry. Instead, it demands that you question the validity of it. It promotes this validity testing by introducing context and perspective into the equation. It supports you to access your thinking mind and try to engage in a rational assessment of your emotional mind’s experience. It may well be that the social engagement is anxiety provoking and the response you are having, based on previous bad social experiences, is valid.

Maybe your experience of anxiety is an appropriate response to the situation. If that is the case, then this spares you from berating yourself for being weak and prevents you from diagnosing yourself as having ‘something wrong’ with you.

Instead, it confirms for you that you are human and that these human responses are understandable. It doesn’t suggest that you shouldn’t think about the anxious situation anymore. Rather, it suggests you reframe how you are thinking about it.

If, upon reflection, you conclude that your anxious reaction is not warranted and is an overreaction to the impending social event, then you need to challenge the anxious lens through which you are seeing the world. Demand the evidence for why you need to feel so anxious. Reassure yourself that a feeling is not a fact and that the event in question is not the end of the world. Reframe the experience by asking yourself, ‘Does my life’s happiness depend on this moment?’ When the answer is no, then try your best to think differently about your emotional response, accept it as part of the process of living and try to place it within perspective and context. This approach is not distraction-based; it is action-based.

Re-wiring

Accept that this will be difficult the first few times. You are trying to rewire a cognitive pathway, and this is going to take time and practice. Cognitive pathways are powerful things. Think about how you drive your car, brush your teeth or dry yourself after a shower. These are examples of established cognitive pathways.

Because you have repeated the same routine over and over again, it becomes automatic. When you drive your car, you do it almost subconsciously. Have you ever bought a new car where the indicators and the window wipers are on a different side from what you were used to in your old car? For the first few weeks, every time it rains, you will signal to turn right, and when you are turning right, you will put on the window wipers. This is the result of a cognitive pathway. Even though you know the operational levers are on the other side, you will continue to automatically reach for the wrong one.

Anxious responses are cognitive pathways too, and so they take time to be rewired. The only way you can change a cognitive pathway is by changing the habit. Distracting yourself every time you use the wrong lever won’t change the habit; it will only help you to get less upset about making the mistake.

The only way to overcome unfamiliarity is by becoming familiar with something. It is the ‘doing’ that impacts the thinking’ and, in turn, the ‘thinking’ that will impact the emotion. So, when you use the wrong lever in your new car, don’t berate yourself for being an idiot and doing the wrong thing.

You don’t need to pull over and listen to your meditation app for 20 minutes to stop you from getting upset about your mistake. You need to use the other lever, remind yourself that it’s hard to get used to something new and vow to try to get it right next time. Mental fitness is similar to physical fitness. There are no quick fixes, and it just takes time, effort, calmness and consistency for it to begin to work.

Dr Colman Noctor is a psychotherapist and a lecturer. He is a weekly columnist with the Irish Examiner, resident psychotherapist on RTÉ Radio 1’s The Ray Darcy Show and the author of the parenting self-help title Cop On. Originally from Blessington, Colman now lives in Carlow and has three children.

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