There are many times in my life where I’ve encountered emotional triggers in relationships. I get angry, irritable, or anxious, or maybe I just fall into a well of depression. You know, the kind where all I’m really willing to do is watch TV and eat Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies. Or, if I’m angry, where I complain drammatically how it’s someone else’s fault. Either way, I just feel worse afterward.

So, when things start to spiral downward, I’ve learned it’s really important to catch it early. And I have to be intentional about it. Sometimes, I even need to remind myself of my own tools so that I can get back to that space of love, joy, motivation, excitement, and empowerment.

Today, I’m sharing one of my best strategies with you so that, whether you get into a fight with your partner, or you’re just struggling to get off the couch, you have a way to come back to neutral, and then positive.

[Related: How to Have Sacred Sex – 5 Ways to Make Sex Healing, Not Shameful]

The Traffic Light System for Emotional Triggers in Relationships

Ask nearly any driver what red means, and they’ll say “stop.” Ask them about the color green, and they’ll say it means “go.” These meaning of these two colors are nearly universal, and because the stoplight system is so clear (???? = go; ???? = slow down; ❤️ = stop) it’s been adopted elsewhere.

For example, in kink and BDSM, it’s common to use traffic light colors as safe words. In fact, events that I’ve been to in the kink scene even recognize “RED” as the universal safe word. That means, even if the players have other safe words that they prefer to use, if someone calls “RED,” that the scene stops immediately. I even use these as safe words during energy healing sessions with my clients, especially if I’m taking them into a past life regression or the Akashic Records.

Likewise, when I studied health coaching with Dr. Sears Wellness Institute, we applied that color system to eating: green was for “grow” foods like fruits and veggies; yellow was for whole grains, dairy, beans, and lean meats; and red was for processed foods.

But it’s possible to apply the traffic light system to more than just kink and healthy eating. You can use it as a way to identify where you are emotionally. You can use it to name when you encounter emotional triggers in relationships.

In this framework, the colors mean the following things:

  • ???? = I’m engaged, curious, and ready to listen and hold space for you.
  • ???? = I’m wary, hesitant, and feeling guarded. Let’s proceed with caution.
  • ❤️ = I’m fully in fight or flight mode. I’m feeling angry, anxious, insecure, or overwhelmed. We need to stop, and I need to practice self-care.

What I’ve learned from using this system

My partner and I began applying this framework to our relationship over the summer when we had emotional triggers, and it was something we used for awhile. During that time, we noticed several things:

  1.  We had fewer blow-ups and were more compassionate with each other when we let the other know which color we were at.
  2. I spend a lot of time in yellow without even noticing it. Whenever I have any tension in my body, I’m in some variation of yellow. If I’m not being authentic, then I’m yellow.
  3. Experiencing moments with my partners where one or both of us is yellow/red does NOT mean our relationship is broken. It’s part of life. I’ve noticed that I’m sometimes yellow with other people and I don’t say so, so the tension remains. Calling yellow or red with my partner creates a safe container where I can heal my emotional triggers in an increasingly productive way.
  4. Ending our texts with an emoji heart (????????❤️) is a nifty and non-dramatic short-hand to let my partner know where I am emotionally at that point in the conversation if I’m not certain how to communicate my emotions more precisely.
  5. It’s challenging to call “yellow” or “red” the instant I’m emotionally triggered. It takes a lot of mindfulness and awareness.

Overall, it was a great lesson in emotional awareness, and I learned a lot about myself throughout this process.

How to apply the traffic-light system

It’s great to know what I’ve learned, and I’m also writing this blog post so that you can use this system and benefit from it in your life. So, here’s how you can apply the system in your own life.

  • When you interact with others, start by asking yourself, “What color am I right now?” Are you engaged and curious (????)? Are you hesitant (????)? Are you feeling defensive and shut down, unwilling to consider the other person’s perspective (❤️)? If you’re in a space of yellow or red, experiment with identifying and voicing your unmet needs (see here for a full list), creating space from the other person, or practicing self-care. You might consider going for a walk, meditating, or imagining things from the other person’s perspective before responding.
  • If you’re in a situation where there’s conflict, see fi you can gauge where the other person might be. If you’re in green, and they’re in yellow or red, practice empathy with them. Tell them sincerely, “I’m here for you, and I accept you exactly where you are.” (But only say this if you actually mean it!)
  • If both you and the other person are in yellow or red, see if you can de-escalate the situation. That might mean you change the topic and come back to what you were discussing at a later time. Maybe it menas you give yourself space to reflect on WHY you became triggered or what you’re learning. Maybe it means you give the other person space. Or maybe it just means naming what you’re experiencing in your body. Like saying, “Hey, I’m feeling tension in my body, which tells me I’m feeling nervous about this.”
  • Share this framework with your partners, close friends, and family, if you feel inspired. Practice adding the heart emojis to your texts (????????❤️) to see if that helps you both experience more attentiveness to where you are emotionally.

If you explore this framework (or something similar!) and have had success, I’d love to know about it. Contact me directly or post a comment at the end of the blog to let me know how it worked for you!

Taking it one step further

Awareness of emotional triggers in relationships is the first step, and shifting more quickly back to green from red or yellow is the next step. So, I encourage you to write a list of things that bring you joy when you do them, even if you’re feeling crummy to start. For me, that’s writing. Whether it’s blogging or journaling or creative writing, I can just about guarantee that after a bit of writing, I’ll feel better. (Case in point: when I started this blog, I was in a rough spot, and now, I’m feeling much lighter.) What is an activity that lifts you up in the same way, your version of writing?

Here’s some ideas in case you’re stuck:

  • Go for a walk and hug a tree.
  • Meditate.
  • Dance.
  • Do yoga.
  • Eat dark chocolate.
  • Wash your face.
  • Sing along to one of your favorite songs.
  • Dress up and go out with your friends.
  • Practice mindful coloring, and use that 120-pack of crayons. You know you want to.
  • Eat one of your favorite foods.
  • Give yourself a face mask.
  • Play laser tag.
  • Go kickboxing.
  • Drink hot tea or kombucha on tap.
  • Read your favorite novel.
  • Get a book from the library.
  • Do an oracle card reading for yourself or a friend.

Ideally, this routine is something that makes you feel supported and more empowered. What would that look like for you? No matter what, may it bring you joy and healing. ????