Anxiety Help – The Traffic Light Technique

Today I’m sharing the very first Anxiety management technique I was taught right in the midst of my Perinatal Mental Health breakdown.  I’d never experienced Anxiety before and had no idea what was going on other than I felt panicked, overwhelmed and more scared than I’ve ever been in my life.  An amazing occupational therapist from my local specialist Perinatal Mental Health team sat me down and taught me this technique.  It was an enormous help and the very first stepping stone on my road to recovery.

Traffic lights, as seen from below. Anxiety traffic light management techanique

Below I’ve outlined that three steps along with some examples of how my Anxiety was manifesting, and how I applied the technique.


Red – Stop

Focus on slow, steady breaths.
Notice what you are thinking, feeling and doing.
What is it a need for?  e.g. certainty, control, protection from danger?

Taking a breath and a pause like this during an Anxiety attack can be challenging in itself.  With all that adrenaline flooding our system our natural reaction is to run or struggle, to stay caught up in the spiral and feel more and more panicked.  This first part of the technique focuses firstly on your breathing.  Taking in a few, slow and steady breathes can give you the mental room to acknowledge what is happening, what you a feeling and what you need to calm down.

Example: Because insomnia was such a huge symptom for me struggling to sleep ended up being a trigger for the anxiety itself.  I would be fidgety and agitated under the sheets; sweaty, breathless, panicked etc.  Reminding myself to stop, forcing myself to still and dragging in some deep breaths was how I applied this step.

Amber – Wait

Don’t engage with your worries or try to control them.
Let them be there knowing that they will not harm you.
Remind yourself of the compromise – acceptance of what you can and can’t control.

I’m going to repeat that first line – Don’t engage with your worries or try to control them – because I honestly feel like these words sum up Anxiety recovery for me.  The key to recovering from Anxiety in both the long-term and for brief, immediate relief is not to try to force your thoughts away, or run from them or bury them.  This only increases your distress.  Instead it’s to acknowledge them, accept they they are there but don’t fight them, don’t analyse them, don’t get tangled up in them.

(Further reading on this: Why I Gave Up Fighting Anxiety and The Biggest Mistake You Can Make During Anxiety Recovery)

Example: A good example for this is the awful, often violent intrusive thoughts I had about myself and my baby son.  The content of these thoughts was so dreadful that I couldn’t help but engage with them, analyse them, fear them and try to rid myself of them.  But once I began to just let the thoughts exist, acknowledge that they are only thoughts and nothing more, and engage with them less I got some relief.

Green – Go

Let the worries drift by like clouds in the sky.
Focus on the present moment in which you can be certain e.g. your environment, your breathing, doing an activity etc.
Watch the feeling go by, imagine it drifting away from you.  Ground yourself in the present moment, focus on the small task in front of you and what you can control right now.

The third and final step focuses firstly on visualisation – sometimes it can help to actually picture your thoughts drifting away from you (further reading on this: Getting Space Between You And Your Anxiety) and secondly on mindfulness and being present.  By definition, Anxiety cannot exists within the present because it is fear and worry about what may happen in the future, whether that be immediate or distant.  It takes lots of practice to learn to be more present but it a wonderful skill to learn for Anxiety recovery.

Example: To help with this technique I would give myself very simple tasks to carry out each day – e.g. folding washing.  I would use these simple, monotonous tasks to focus my attention when I needed to be present and mindful.


Free Printable for Traffic Light Technique

Although this three-step technique seems very simple, the challenge comes in doing it every single time you have a anxious thought or feeling.  You’re not going to catch every one at first, you’re going to start engaging with the thoughts and getting twisted up and then you’ll catch what you’re doing and be disappointed in yourself.  Forget about that, don’t beat yourself up.  Congratulate yourself for noticing what you did wrong and move forward with the technique next time the wave of Anxiety comes.

I carried this traffic light technique around on a crumpled piece of A4 for months so I’ve decided to make you all a shiny new printable so you can keep it close too.  Download yours below.

For more self-help techniques like this visit www.getselfhelp.co.uk.  Or you can message me via my Facebook page if you ever want to talk one to one.

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Related posts:

How To Beat Anxiety With Belief, Confidence & Visualisation

Anxiety Cheat Sheet

Why I Gave Up Fighting Anxiety

14 comments on “Anxiety Help – The Traffic Light Technique

  1. I’ve only had an anxiety attack once, it was due to me being bullied at my then workplace but I remember the feeling well. The tight feeling in your chest and the panic that something is happening is awful, if I had known at the time this was what was happening these tips would have been very useful. Hopefully I never need to use your tips again but it’s worth knowing them

  2. At the moment I suffer with pretty intense anxiety attacks on a daily basis. I try quite a few mindful techniques but never heard of this one! This sounds like it could be really grounding so well definitely give it a try!

    1. I hope it helps, Emma, and I’m so sorry you’ve been suffering lately. Feel free to take a look at the Anxiety Help section of my blog for tons more content about Anxiety management. And I’m here for a chat if ever you need to x

  3. I needed this little tip today. I’ve had three truly positive years, then yesterday I had a water leak, No big deal to some but it brought back an overwhelming rush of anxiety. Sometimes you come across the right message at just the time you need it. Thank you x

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