Using the Anxiety Pressure Gauge

Credits Craig Higson-Smith Last Updated 2014-08

The impact of any training program depends upon the participants’ ability to integrate new information and use that information effectively. Security training emotionally challenges both trainers and trainees in many interesting ways. The study of fear is a deep and thought-provoking area, and as trainers, we learn about ourselves and about those we teach.

By Craig Higson-Smith, of the Center for Victims of Torture

Heighten the impact of security training.

The most important lesson from part one is that security trainers should pay close attention to the level of anxiety experienced by participants. Too little anxiety and they will not be motivated to engage in the training or learn new skills, whereas too much anxiety and the fear buttons in their brains are pressed and the capacity to learn may be reduced. There is, however, a happy medium that all security trainers aim for.

The Anxiety Pressure Gauge

To help us visualize anxiety in the training room, we should imagine a pressure gauge:

The Blue Zone

…on the left represents those who are “cool” towards the issue of security and unlikely to engage effectively with the material. This zone includes people who are genuinely unaware of danger, or who believe—rightly or wrongly—that their existing security provisions are adequate.

The Green Zone

…in the middle represents those whose level of anxiety is appropriate for effective security training. These are people who feel appropriately anxious when asked to consider the threats implicit in their work. The Green Zone also includes people who are generally worried about their safety.

The Orange Zone

…represents those who are more anxious and who may easily be triggered to a level where they are unable to learn. This zone includes people who are fearful and those who have slipped into one or more survival responses.

The Red Zone

…on the far right represents those participants who are overwhelmed with anxiety, or seriously traumatized. These people should most likely not be participants in the security training.

When “reading” the pressure gauge to assess the anxiety of participants, it is important to remember that anxiety is dynamic. Different people in the training group will enter the training at different levels. It is useful to get a reading of the group as a whole, as well as for each individual.

Ask yourself the following throughout your training:

  • “Where are most people in the group sitting on the anxiety pressure gauge?”
  • “Who are the people who are unusually anxious?”
  • “Who are the people who don’t see the need to be here?”
These observations offer important clues for increasing the impact of a security training workshop.

In a group of participants who are predominantly in the blue zone, you will need to focus your training on raising anxiety levels by helping people appreciate the risks present in their work. A group of participants predominantly in the orange zone need a trainer who is able to discuss danger without pressing their sensitive fear buttons.

One of the most difficult types of groups to work with is the group with participants spread all over the dial. Techniques for raising or lowering the pressure in the group, as well as techniques for working with mixed groups are discussed in more detail a little later.

Not only will individual participants enter training at different levels, but they will also shift on the dial in response to different activities and the influence of other members of the group. This can work for or against the trainer. The challenge is to use activities and manage the group dynamic in such a way that most participants stay within the Green Zone for the entire training. Remember that healthy participants will act automatically, unconsciously, and immediately to make themselves safer.

For example, a participant may start checking their email during the training in order to distract themselves from upsetting conversations. They will also act to make themselves feel safer, such as suggesting the trainer or others in the group are exaggerating the prevalence of a particular threat. In other words, participants will tend to shift naturally towards the “cooler” end in the Blue Zone of the dial - only those in the Red Zone may not be able to do this on their own. Significant movement towards the red end of the dial suggests that either the training activities or the group dynamic are pressing people’s fear buttons in a way that is not conducive to effective security trainings.

Healthy people automatically regulate their own emotional state. Successful trainers work with this capacity, not against it.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication

When reading the anxiety pressure gauge, it is important to notice all aspects of participants’ communication. When we think about communication we tend to focus on what is being said; however, what is spoken represents a relatively small portion of our total communication. We communicate a great deal of information with our facial expression, tone of voice, in the way we hold our bodies, and overall behavior. A skilled facilitator pays attention to all aspects of communication when assessing the participants in a training group.

It is useful to pay conscious attention to what each person says, how they hold their bodies, their facial expression and tone, as well as their behavior. This provides a sense of the emotional tone of the group as a whole, and training strategies can be adapted to suit. The following illustrate typical profiles of participants in the different anxiety zones:

Blue Zone

“Cool” towards the issue of security; unlikely to engage effectively with the material.


  • “I was required to attend.”
  • “I don’t think this really applies to me.”
  • “Is this really necessary?”

Posture and Body Language:

  • Too relaxed
  • Slouching in the chair
  • Fidgets
  • Drumming or tapping fingers

Facial Expression:

  • Sleepy
  • Bored and unhappy
  • Impatient


  • Soft and low
  • Sighs of boredom or impatience
  • Rolls eyes
  • Minimal eye contact


  • Agrees too easily with everything the trainer suggests
  • Minimal, grudging participation
  • Not taking notes
  • Slow to respond to facilitator’s questions or instructions
  • Slow to return from breaks
  • Leaves the room often for different reasons
  • Possibly engaged in other activities during the training

Green Zone

Level of anxiety is appropriate for effective security training.


  • “That’s really interesting.”
  • “I had never thought about that before.”
  • “How does that work again?”

Posture and Body Language:

  • Relaxed
  • Open
  • Leaning forward

Facial Expression:

  • Smiles
  • Concentration
  • Eye contact is frequent and sustained


  • Bright
  • Strong
  • Speaks clearly


  • Clarifies questions and instructions
  • Asks questions
  • Contributes experiences and thoughts

Orange Zone

More anxious; may easily be triggered to a level where they are unable to learn.


  • “I don’t like to think about how my work puts me in danger.”
  • “This stuff is really uncomfortable. Can’t you just tell us what to do?”
  • “Is talking about these things supposed to teach us something?”

Posture and Body Language:

  • Tense
  • Closed
  • Holds own body

Facial Expression:

  • Anxious or worried
  • Frowns often
  • Eye contact is often but brief


  • Tight
  • Brittle
  • Soft and low


  • Self-soothing movements such as playing with jewelry or rubbing.
  • Challenges questions and instructions.
  • Asks questions.
  • Becomes less articulate when speaking of sensitive topics.
  • Contributes experiences and ideas in a guarded fashion.
  • Leaves the room often for various reasons.
  • More active in small groups that in the larger group.

Red Zone

Participants who are overwhelmed with anxiety, or seriously traumatized.


  • “I can’t talk about that.”
  • “This always upsets me.”
  • Pressure of speech — a feeling that the person can’t control how much they tell about an experience.

Posture and Body Language:

  • Very tense and closed
  • Holds own body
  • Rocking

Facial Expression:

  • Obvious distress
  • Tears
  • Looks down a lot—very limited eye contact


  • Anxious
  • Sad
  • Soft and low


  • Sudden bouts of distress when talking about frightening topics.
  • Self-soothing movements, such as playing with jewelry or rubbing.
  • Becomes less articulate when speaking of sensitive topics.
  • Refusal to particate in some activities and general low participation.
  • Inappropriate emotional outpouring in response to some questions.
  • May remove themselves from the training entirely.

Mixed Signals

It will quickly become apparent that some participants do not fit easily into any of the zones described above. These people are sending mixed signals. Human beings communicate with mixed signals for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we try to hide our true feelings in order to maintain our privacy, and other times we do this to protect other peoples’ feelings. Consider the following examples:

John’s non-verbal communications suggest that he is in the Orange Zone.

He sits quietly on his own, seems unable to relax, and constantly rubs the side of his forehead. And yet, when you ask him how he feels today, he replies in a bright voice that he is excited to be attending the workshop and looking forward to what you have to teach—classic Green Zone behavior. We can speculate that John is actually quite anxious about attending the workshop, but is trying to present himself as a good workshop participant. If this is true, for John to get the full benefit of the workshop you must help John feel safer and more confident.

Mary also speaks like someone in the Green Zone.

She spontaneously tells you that she has been looking forward to this training, and has some ideas that you might find interesting. And yet you notice that during the first session she is responding to texts on her mobile phone, and her participation is minimal. This is the behavior you would expect from someone in the Blue Zone. One possibility is that Mary does not truly want to be at the workshop and that she is just trying to be nice. For her to get the full benefit of the workshop, you will need to find a way to help her appreciate the threats associated with her work and the value of what you have to teach.

If you are finding it difficult to analyze the mixed communication of a particular person, trust your gut! As a social species, human beings have evolved a wonderfully sophisticated ability to read the emotions of the people around us. As a healthy, sensitive human being, you might get the feeling that a person is angry, sad, or anxious. You are probably correct, even if you are unable to explain how it is that you know this.

Nonverbal communication often reveals the actual anxiety that a person is experiencing, while verbal communication reveals how he or she wishes to be seen. Both are useful information to the perceptive trainer.