Learning to Manage Emotions

Understanding the Zone of Tolerance

We are not born knowing how to manage our emotions; this means that we have to learn. 

We learn from all kinds of experiences and people, including parents, friends, teachers, and society in general.   Childhood is an important time for developing an understanding of emotion.   If we have repeated, overwhelming emotional experiences as children this can cause us to look for ‘quick fixes’ to manage our emotions.   This can be anything that will work in the short term (e.g. suppressing emotions, self-harm, avoidance).   While this might help at the time, it can develop into an automatic way of coping that doesn’t work so well later down the line.

Especially in the early years of life, children need parents or other adults to manage their emotions for them.   This doesn’t have to be perfect, but if it isn’t ‘good enough’ it can lead to problems.   

In some family or social settings certain emotions aren’t accepted or managed well.   This means we can learn to bury them.

In other families or situations, there can be too much emotion expressed without it being properly managed.   This means people have difficulty calming themselves.   

Some people who experience neglect or abuse in childhood may even have been encouraged to develop unhealthy ways of managing emotions (such as drinking too much).  

People are also born with different temperaments.   This means that we are different in how sensitive we are to emotions.   And different in how we tend to react (e.g. being shy or outgoing).   

This balance between the temperament we are born with, and the environment we are raised in, deeply affects how we learn to manage our emotions as adults.   Sometimes, a simple mis-match between how a person is, and how others are, can be enough to cause problems  - for example,  an emotionally sensitive person, in an emotionally insensitive family.   

Even as adults without previous emotional problems, experiences like bullying and harassment, or illness and work-stress can overwhelm our ability to cope.  This can cause us to turn to unhealthy ways of managing emotions later in life too.

 

The Zone of Tolerance

A useful way to think about how we experience and manage our emotions is through the Zone of Tolerance (sometimes called the window of tolerance).

The Zone of Tolerance is a simple idea that says we all have a comfort zone where we can manage our emotions productively, based on how intense the emotion is.

Zone of Tolerance

Think of it like a Goldilocks’ zone where emotional intensity is “just right”- not too high and not too low. 

Being in the zone allows us to become aware of emotions and make thoughtful decisions about how to respond to them. 

Being in the zone also helps us to think clearly, make decisions, remember things, and interact well with others. 

It is where we tend to feel most like our true selves. 

When we are at the edge of our zone, we are emotionally vulnerable (the red dotted line on the diagram above) and very slight things can put us out. 

If we have trouble staying in the zone, then managing simple things in life can become very difficult.

When our emotions are too intense (sometimes called hyperarousal) then we may feel anxious, panicked, distraught, “hyper” or overwhelmed. 

When our emotions are too intense it is very difficult to slow down, take stock of what we are feeling, and to act on those emotions in healthy ways.   So we tend to react impulsively, without thinking about the consequences. 

 

When we experience emotional highs like this, it can be common for an emotional low to follow 

 

 

Hyperarousal Zone of Tolerance

When our emotions are not intense enough (sometimes called hypoarousal) then we may feel depressed, numb, disconnected or empty.

Hypoarousal Zone

We may get stuck in circular thinking, or find it difficult to think of anything at all.  We may feel mentally exhausted and want to withdraw from the world.  We may also experience a kind of zoning-out, or detachment from ourselves and the world (dissociation).

    When our emotional energy is too low it becomes very difficult to motivate ourselves, and at the extreme we may be unable to feel anything.

 

Depending on our own temperament and emotional learning, our ability to tolerate difficult emotions will be different.  However, everyone comes out of the zone from time-to- time!

Some people will have learned very effective ways to stay in the zone and avoid the extremes of feeling too much, or too little.   Others will have more difficulty with this, and tend to fall out of the zone, and react with unhealthy strategies, more often.   Trying to keep track of how often you find you are in the zone, and the things that tend to take you out of the zone, can be extremely helpful.

One way to do this is to try and keep track of your emotional reactions.

Learning to manage your emotions: Emotional Reactions

The above information and that on the Emotion regulation and Emotional reactions pages can be downloaded here - Emotional Regulation:Managing Emotions