Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
Your emotional regulation capacity (ERC) is your ability to effectively manage and respond to your emotional experiences. This is an important capacity to develop in order to improve your overall emotional intelligence and life satisfaction.
One key set of skills for improving your overall ERC is learning how to become more aware of and attuned to the intensity of your emotional experiences. Knowing the intensity of your emotions gives you valuable information that helps you to choose the most appropriate strategies to help process them wisely. This is especially helpful when you are dealing with difficult emotions.
The SUDS (Subjective Units of Distress) scale is a self-assessment tool that measures the subjective intensity of distress that you are currently feeling. You self-assess where you are on a scale from 0 – 10 (0= no distress at all, 5 = moderate levels of distress, 10 = I am going to the Emergency Room right now).
Experience IT -> Label then SUDS
Close your eyes and become aware of your solar plexus. It’s right below (going towards your feet) your sternum where your ribs end at the midline of your core (it’s the area that if struck by something knocks the wind out of you).
Next, let your ball of awareness in your solar plexus unwind itself after your next exhale.
Let your awareness receive the sensations from your body for the next few moments. Label the emotion you are feeling right now (hopefully not boredom 😊) and give your SUDS level for the emotion from 0-10.
Side Bar: A second & third emotion? It is possible that you may be experiencing more than one emotion right now. This can sometimes make it trickier to label emotions. If you struggled to sense and label your current emotion try it again and open to the possibility that you may be experiencing more than one emotion right now. Try to notice the main emotional feeling tone and try to Label then SUDS it (Tip: You can take a guess and when you say it out loud see if that guess resonates with you or not).
Extra credit: If you were able to Label then SUDS the 1st time you did it then do it again and see if you can sense a secondary emotion.
(0-1) Low Intensity Zone (LIZ):
Not intense enough to keep your attention interested. Sensations are generally faint and hard to track.
(2-7) The Emotional Learning Zone (ELZ):
Emotional intensities between 2 through 7 are strong enough to keep you motivated to pay attention to and track the emotion that is present and yet not so intense to where the emotional energy can destabilize your attentional control. The ELZ is where both your CORTEX and LIMBIC systems maximally communicate with each other.
Your CORTEX, more specifically your PREFRONTAL CORTEX, is where your brain does most of its advanced mental processing. This includes adaptable thinking, planning, self-monitoring, perspective taking and connecting thoughts and actions to your goals and values.
The LIMBIC system is the main area where the circuitry for your primary emotions reside.
In the ELZ, both the CORTEX and LIMBIC systems are stimulated to accelerate their cross talk with each other. This increases the possibility for integration to happen between these two layers and helps improve your ERC.
The ELZ is where you want to be when you are trying to learn more about your emotions and trying to develop your capacity to regulate them.
(8-10) High Reactivity Zone:
Your attention can destabilize making it very difficult to do any practices that require sustained focus and or tracking at this level of emotional intensity. The blood in your brain shifts into your LIMBIC system and BRAIN STEM and away from your CORTEX.
This shift in blood functionally shuts down most of your advanced mental processing abilities. Dissociation and or shut down responses may occur. Your thinking becomes heavily biased towards your typical negative reactive narratives conditioned by your past experiences where your emotional intensity was in the HRZ.
To summarize: Your ability to regulate your emotions effectively can be enhanced by becoming more aware of and attuned to your emotional intensity level. The emotional intensity level falls into 1 of 3 zones: The Low Intensity Zone (LIZ), the Emotional Learning Zone (ELZ), and the High Reactivity Zone (HRZ).
Each of the 3 intensity zones have different optimal strategies to use. In Part 2 of this article we will explore the different strategies to use when you find yourself in each of these 3 intensity zones.