Working with emotional activation

In the last post, I talked about taking your emotional temperature, which is something I try to practice most days because it isn’t something that comes naturally to me. Nevertheless, I find it invaluable in helping me to notice and work with my emotions. As I have practised noticing my levels of emotional activation, I realised that what I need to do in relation to my emotions differs by how intense they are. At first, I was really focused on being with my emotions, irrespective of their intensity. I love Meg-John Barker’s zine on staying with feelings, and I have used lots of the techniques that they talk about. But as time went on, I realised that staying with feelings really only works well for me when my emotions are in the 4-7 range. Then, a few years ago, I trained to run Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) skills groups, and over the last 2 years I’ve gone through the core Emotion Regulation and Distress Tolerance skills several times. Over time that time, I naturally gravitated to using mindfulness skills for the lowest level of emotional activation, emotion regulation skills for the middle of the range, and distress tolerance skills for really intense emotions. When I got to thinking about it outside of a DBT context, I realised I see the emotional scale as useful in figuring out what to do with the emotions at each intensity band. 

Noticing zone

Staying with feelings zone

Self-compassion zone

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


At the lowest level of intensity, I find it incredibly helpful to just notice how low-level emotions feel. To notice what thoughts, sensations and urges happen with low levels of emotional activation. I see this practice as helping me to tune into my body and feelings before they get urgent or difficult to manage. It is all about noticing and labelling emotional experiences, and recognising the texture of my emotions when they are just getting started. Some people are amazing at this – and they don’t really need the practice, but there are a lot of people just like me that have a really hard time feeling emotions when they are small. You can read more about how to work on noticing lower level emotion in this post.

The 4-7 range is where you can get lots of really effective emotional work done. It’s about sitting with feelings and allowing yourself to pass through them, or using them to guide your decision making about relationships and other stuff that comes up in life. Like I said earlier, Meg-John Barker’s zine is really wonderful at outlining some great ways of being with and experiencing emotions, so I’ll leave you to peruse that at your leisure. 

The highest range, 8-10, is what I call the self-compassion zone. In fact, it means one of two things. Either you are responding to an emergency, or you’re having an emotional crisis. Most parents would hit a 10 if their child tried to run into the road in front of a car, and the right thing to do there is obviously to deal with the immediate situation and make sure the kid is safe. The self-compassion has to come after the emergency situation has been resolved. Another situation where you might hit really high levels of emotional activation is when you’re in the middle of interpersonal conflict. In this case, self-compassion comes first. That pretty much always means taking a break from other people, especially those you are in conflict with. This zone is all about finding ways to reduce your emotional activation and be kind to yourself. I’ll write a future post about this too.

In the meantime, I invite you to notice whether these bands speak to your experience. Are the bands in the right place for you? Are you good at working with emotions at some intensities, and not at others? Over the next few days, take a couple of moments to notice which intensity of emotion you’re at, and how you choose to act on those emotions. 

If you’re interested in learning DBT emotion regulation skills, you can find more information about my DBT skills groups here.

2 thoughts on “Working with emotional activation

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