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How to take and moderate your emotional temperature

Tags: Coping

Your Goldilocks zone

Emotions are one of the most challenging things about being human. Other animals don't think about it – they just react. However, humans have evolved to have morals, a conscience and a code of conduct called 'manners'.

Being able to control our emotions is very important to us. It help us to have healthy relationships – it helps us to belong (extremely important to us), and it helps us to feel good.

Every emotion is functional – to a point. For example guilt is functional – it stops us from breaking the law and makes us apologise when we've done wrong. But when guilt gets out of control (e.g. ruminating and beating ourselves up for things in the past we can't change) – then that is far from functional. It just doesn't work for us at all.

An easy way to remember whether an emotion is helpful, or unhelpful – is to think of it like a thermometer.

If the emotion is in the red – it's too hot, or intense.

If the emotion is in the blue – it's too cold, or soft.

Think of purple as 'just right'.

Take anger. A bit of anger can be good. It can motivate you to make a change – get out of a bad job or end a dysfunctional relationship – or act to right a wrong (e.g. protest against injustice).

But too much anger (especially over a long period of time) can be extremely stressful. Obviously it can be catastrophic for relationships and can make you stressed, anxious or depressed.

So keeping your anger in the 'purple zone' keeps your stress down but allows you to have a strong opinion while still staying relatively 'cool.

Can anger be 'cold'? Absolutely, yes it can.

Cold anger (avoidance, shunning, giving the 'cold silent treatment'), can be every bit as dysfunctional as 'hot' anger.

What about positive emotions like joy and happiness – can they be hot or cold – functional or dysfunctional?

Recent research into happiness by Gruber et al points out that excessive happiness (too hot), can affect creativity, make you overly optimistic (not have health checks etc.), make hasty judgements about people and lead to risky behaviour.

So it seems, you can be 'too happy' (not mentioning mania which is a different matter altogether and is abnormal pathology).

Fear is interesting because too much of it is certainly stressful, especially over time, but not enough of it might stop you from acting on a real threat.

Stress can definitely be useful, but too much (hot zone), is corrosive to health, work and life in general.

So when you feel an emotion, ask yourself

'What is my emotional temperature?'

Is it too hot, or too cold?

How can I get in the 'purple zone'?

What can I do about it?

Whether you're too hot or too cold - here's a few general tips to get you into the Purple.

Tips to set your temperature

  • Take a 6 second deep chest breath (don't think, do or say anything until you are finished)
  • If necessary take another one.
  • Accept that being too hot or too cold is uncomfortable
  • Decide on a strategy e.g. Am I having unhelpful thoughts and how can I change them? Is my self-talk dysfunctional? Do I need livening up or calming down? What can I do to make myself feel better?
  • Do NOT react or make any rash decisions – take your time to come up with a strategy
  • Be mindful and keep your perspective (see also What is Mindfulness and Brain Training? and Waiting out the emotional storm)

Staying in the purple all the time may not be ideal either – we all have our moments of sadness and gloom and our spikes of joy and no change in our emotional temperature might not always be a good idea. But emotional discomfort can be overcome.

If emotional pain persists, please see your doctor, a psychologist or call one of these numbers:

Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
Mensline Australia - 1300 78 99 78
Beyondblue - 1300 224 636
Suicideline Victoria - 1300 651 251
Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline - 1800 551 800

Gruber, J., Mauss, I.B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good.Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 222-233. doi: 10.1177/1745691611406927