When the Intensity of Emotion is Not Helping You

In spin class, there is a teacher that always says in the beginning:  “I coach on levels of intensity: easy, moderate, hard, breathless”.

The intensity for unpleasant feelings is similar: easy, moderate, hard, breathless.

While there is the range of all human emotion that we need to practice tolerating, there is also the intensity of emotion that we need to understand.  I think of the range of emotion as the X axis and the intensity like the Y axis.

Every emotion in the range can have varying levels of intensity.

For the emotions that are on the pleasant side of the spectrum like happy, loved, excited, probably most of that range is fine to experience.  While it sounds strange, people do have blocks or limits to how much goodness they can tolerate and, if this is you, I highly recommend “The Big Leap” by Gay Hendricks (non-affiliate link).

For the unpleasant side of the spectrum, you can feel a little sad (easy) all the way to extremely sad and grief- stricken (breathless).  In communicating with my clients about intensity, I usually ask them assign a number from 1 to 10 (1 being easy and 10 being the most intense this emotion has ever been).  If they can tell me the number, I can get a sense of how I can help.

Here is a breakdown of emotional intensity and what is needed in each range.

The intensity of emotion is in the 1-3 range (easy):

The emotion probably needs acknowledgement and, perhaps, is asking for something to be done.  That will be relatively easy to determine if you are familiar with the general messages basic emotions are trying to communicate. Stay tuned for future posts that will outline messages from the 10 basic emotions.

The intensity of emotion is in the 4-6 range (moderate):

In this range, you want to acknowledge the emotion, understand what it wants to communicate and take any needed action.  It is also likely that the emotion will need to process through the body.

In the moderate range, the emotion is helpful as it gives you a message as to what is occurring and what needs to occur for you to make it back to equilibrium.

There is nothing you need to do for the feeling to process through the body, just give it a couple of minutes.  If it helps you to tell someone about it or move the body (work out, take a walk) or breathe to help the body process, go for it.

The intensity of emotion is in the 7-8 range (hard):

This is where, if you have been practicing mindfulness and you are able to observe yourself under intense emotion, your hard work really pays off.  If you can have the clarity of observation to know that you are in this zone, you can make choices about how you want to respond to the messages your emotions are sending.  You can clearly communicate: “I need a minute to process before I respond”.

This is like an athlete who knows how to gather themselves under intense pressure and perform.  They use centering strategies, they breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth to get optimal levels of oxygen, they have a mantra “I can do anything for 30 seconds” or “I can do this”.  In essence, they settle in to the fact that “this is hard right now” and they handle it.

If you do not have a lot of practice being able to observe yourself in this level of emotional intensity, it is totally OK.  It just means you need to pause and allow your feelings to come down before reflecting or trying to solve anything.  This is because the emotion might have entered the “unhelpful” range and it needs to go back down to moderate or easy so you can download the messages your emotion has for you.

The intensity of emotion is in the 9-10 range (breathless):

Safety and no action is really what there is to do about the emotion in this range because the intensity is too high.  It’s like a boat in a storm.  It has to just hang on until the storm passes.  Then you can understand or problem solve.

When the intensity is too high, people are less receptive to utilizing a strategy or skill because the feeling has entered the “unhelpful” range.  It is causing more harm than good, so the only thing to do is wait it out by witnessing it/acknowledging it and then trying to get some distance from it (do something else).

You can only be in the breathless zone for so long.  And, you only want to be visiting that space for short bursts.

Interestingly, sometimes you will want someone to give you solutions when you are experiencing hard or breathless emotional intensity.

That’s because you want it to be fixed, you want to stop the unpleasant feeling.  But you really won’t be satisfied with any solution.  You just need to vent, let it process through, distract yourself and get some perspective.

Then the emotion can return to a helpful range and you can be receptive to solutions.

What strategies work for you to get your emotions back into a helpful range?

2 Comments

  1. […] week, I talked about the intensity of emotion to establish a framework of when feelings can be helpful and […]

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  2. […] emotion, if experienced at an easy or moderate level, is simply a helpful message. The emotion doesn’t stay around too long once it is […]

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