I’m about to put myself out of a job. Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit, but I do think the following idea could decrease a lot of arguments and lead to better relationships.
Introducing: The Internal Emotion Thermometer
Let’s first think about the concept of having an internal emotion thermometer, ranging from 1-10. 1 is super relaxed and a 10 is an *extremely* high level of emotional intensity. I frequently have people tell me they feel they go from a 1 to a 10 in a matter of seconds. Sometimes we are talking about anger, other times sadness or anxiety. In all these cases, it feels like the emotion just takes over someone’s mind and body in mere seconds. They want me to teach them emotional regulation skills when they are at a 10. “I can’t,” I say.
Technically there are actions you can take when you are at a 10, but they certainly don’t involve processing emotions. When any of us are at a 10, we are what the psychology field affectionately refers to as “reptilian brain.” This basically means we have the same ability to understand and process logic as a reptile. The part of the brain responsible for regulating our emotions stops working for all intents and purposes. Furthermore, our nervous systems are dysregulated as well, which can often drive the emotion to an even higher intensity. Once someone is at this level of emotional intensity, they must first calm their brain and body down before they can do any sort of logical processing. A short list of techniques includes:
- Deep breathing
- Grounding exercises
- Splashing your face with water (or even putting your face into a sink or bowl of cold water)
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like getting to an 8, 9, or 10 on my internal thermometer. That is not a good feeling.
Reading Your “Temperature” Throughout the Day
This is where the thermometer comes into play. Most of us hopefully wake up at a 1 or 2. Let’s say you hit some traffic going to work or school and that bumps you up to a 3. Then your boss tears apart your new project or your professor gives you back a paper and the grade is not what you expected. At this point, you are probably at least a good solid 5.
My theory is that most of us come home from school or work at a 5 or 6 most days. The problem is that for most of us it happens gradually throughout the day. If someone hits my car in the parking lot, I may jump from a 2 to a 6 immediately. However, I will notice that jump. I will feel the change in my autonomic nervous system, will be aware of the negative thoughts in my head, and will hopefully give myself a few minutes to cool down. But when it happens gradually, too often people don’t notice. We just go home and are sitting pretty at a 6, but we have the rest of the night to get through. For most of us, 8-10 is the “danger zone,” meaning we are not making great decisions at this point. When we are at a 6, we don’t have much wiggle room at all before we are in that danger zone. We burn dinner, have an argument with a spouse or roommate, and all bets are off.
Identifying and De-Escalating Intense Emotions
The key is to do frequent check-ins with yourself throughout the day. I often encourage people to put reminders on their phones at the beginning. If you can catch your emotions when they are at a 4, 5, or 6, it is much easier. Make the decision NOT to just try to power through the day to get to the end (which many of us do) but actually give yourself some time to try to de-escalate. If you catch your emotions when they are less intense, most people find the de-escalation doesn’t take as long. However, if you wait until you are at an 8 or higher, it will often take exponentially longer.
This concept has made a huge impact on my life. I am certainly not perfect at catching myself every day. However, a lot of the time I can now feel myself as I start to slowly climb up that thermometer. I take a walk around outside on my lunch break, read for a few minutes, or journal, or take a bath if I am at home. There are no right or wrong actions here, just whatever you find soothing.