How To Use The 'Thinking Threshold' To Manage Your Emotions
Psychologist Jennifer Veilleux discusses a technique that can calm your emotions.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 25, 2022
A new article published in the academic journal Practice Innovations introduces a new concept to the scientific study of emotion regulation — something the researchers call the "thinking threshold." According to the authors, the thinking threshold refers to the point at which certain emotional coping strategies, such as cognitive reappraisal, are no longer effective in regulating emotional swings.
I recently spoke with Jennifer Veilleux, a psychologist at the University of Arkansas and lead author of the new paper, to discuss this idea in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.
How did you land on the concept of a "thinking threshold"?
About five years ago, I taught a graduate seminar called Emotion in Psychotherapy where the intention was to teach the clinical psychology doctoral students about some of the basic research on emotion and emotion-regulation. A good chunk of that research stems from a social/personality psychology perspective, and much of it is useful for clinicians to know about, but it can be difficult to wade through it to figure out what would really be the most helpful. The main projects from the class were taking these basic emotion science papers and using them to create clinical materials that could be used in-session with clients.
One of the topics we covered in that seminar was emotion dynamics. Emotion dynamics refers to the idea that emotions are like waves — they have a beginning, middle, and end. Something (a situation in life, a thought about the past) triggers an emotion inside us. Like waves, emotions rise up, peak, and eventually come back down. The study of emotion dynamics refers to looking at the time course and shape of emotional episodes. From this research, I created an "emotion charting" activity to use with clients, where a clinician can help a client visually draw out their emotional waves on paper or on a whiteboard. The graduate student clinicians and I used this activity successfully with clients, who seemed to find value in charting their emotional responses and recognizing that people can differ wildly in terms of what their emotional waves can look like.
When talking about emotional dynamics with clients, we also talked to them about what they tried to do to manage their emotions as the emotional wave unfolded (i.e., emotion regulation strategies). Some people anticipated the emotional wave and would try to avoid the wave entirely. Others would try to escape the situation at or close to the peak in an attempt to make the emotion go away. One of the things we started hearing over and over again is that when people were at the peak of their emotional wave, they felt really overwhelmed by their emotions and they couldn't think clearly. It wasn't that they weren't thinking at all, more that their inner voice going along with the emotion was loud, and often irrational. Clients recognized when they came out of the emotion that the thoughts they had in the midst of the emotion were not the kinds of thoughts they typically had when they were feeling calmer.
These clinical observations led us to the idea of a "thinking threshold." The thinking threshold is the notion that there is a level of emotional intensity above which thinking is impaired, where thinking is driven more by emotion than by logic. The concept overlaps with the idea of "emotion mind" from Dialectical Behavior Therapy. We then tried introducing the "thinking threshold" idea to clients where they would superimpose their "thinking threshold" line onto the emotional wave they charted, and clients loved it! They intuitively grasped the idea that there is a line above which clear thinking is really difficult. From there, we talked to them about how when they are above the line, they should not use coping or emotion regulation strategies that require thinking, because their thinking is impaired. Therefore, using behavioral or sensory strategies is a better idea when above that thinking threshold, like splashing your face with ice water, taking a walk, or getting a hug.
From a clinical standpoint, what percentage of the population would you estimate has difficulty with emotion regulation?
I'm not sure what percentage of the population has clinically significant difficulties with emotion regulation, but virtually everyone I've ever met (myself included) struggles with emotion regulation at least sometimes. Emotions are hard to deal with!
From a clinical standpoint, I have yet to encounter a therapy client who doesn't struggle with emotion regulation in some way or another. Sometimes a person is actually pretty good at regulating but doesn't think they are, and that lack of self-efficacy is harmful. Some people have really narrow repertoires for regulation, so they do the same things in response to every emotion. Those few things work sometimes, but they also result in "mis-regulation" which is using a tried-and-true strategy that isn't actually effective for the situation they are in. And other people really lack skills in emotion regulation because they were never taught how to manage their emotions — these people tend to under-regulate because they don't know what to do or when to employ regulation strategies.
I think emotion regulation flexibility is really what we should strive for — using regulation skills and strategies that fit the situation and are consistent with our goals and values.
The trick is in figuring out which strategy is best for the situation at hand.
The other piece with emotion regulation flexibility is that sometimes emotions need to be felt. Emotions serve a purpose; we have emotions because they are evolutionarily adaptive. Emotions help us navigate the world, learn about ourselves, learn about others, and facilitate social relationships.
If we always try to down-regulate our emotions, we don't actually get the messages our emotions are designed to give us. That is the other piece about emotion regulation flexibility; sometimes emotions are unhelpful and should be regulated, and other times emotions are helpful and should be fully felt and processed.
Figuring out when to regulate and when to experience is the other tricky element, and if anyone ever figures out a clear system for figuring that out, they will solve a lot of people's problems.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who have had difficulty using cognitive reappraisal as an emotion regulation strategy?
You are not alone.
Many people struggle with using cognitive reappraisal as an emotion regulation strategy. I think that is because cognitive reappraisal requires the ability to shift perspective and cognitively consider the situation from a different angle. This is not what strong emotions want you to do. Strong emotions are like a wailing baby — they want you to pay attention to it, pay attention to ONLY it, and pay attention to it RIGHT NOW. Strong emotions don't want you to think from a different perspective, because then the wailing baby won't get its needs met. Emotions often come with irrational and single-minded thoughts because emotions are feelings intended to motivate action, and they don't have to be logical.
My words of wisdom are that cognitive reappraisal is a really helpful strategy to learn, because shifting perspectives and seeing things from different angles are crucial life skills that help people in so many ways.
But it is important to learn how to use and employ cognitive reappraisal when thinking is clear. Trying to use reappraisal when emotions are really high probably won't work.
And there are some people who might continue to struggle with using reappraisal even when they aren't feeling strong emotions — I have seen clients like that. I had a client a few years ago who couldn't tell me what her thoughts were; she couldn't remember them. I've seen other clients who were capable of being guided to reappraise in session but were either unable, unwilling, or unmotivated to do it on their own. That's OKAY. There are other strategies out there that can also help; not being able to use cognitive reappraisal doesn't make you a failure at therapy, or mean you're doomed to be horrible at emotion regulation forever.
The other thing I'd say about cognitive reappraisal is that it is not the holy grail of regulation strategies, even if it is the strategy with the most research behind it. Not all situations need to be reappraised. For example, think about a woman in a domestic violence situation. She is mad at her boyfriend for hitting her, but she reappraises the situation to say to herself "Well, I know he didn't really mean it, he was just feeling stressed." Or think about people of color who are subjected to frequent racist micro and macro-aggressions. Cognitive reappraisal in those situations could facilitate gaslighting, victim-blaming, and generally reinforce bad behavior, none of which is psychologically beneficial.
This is just another reason why emotion regulation flexibility is really key.
What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone struggling with managing moderate to severe emotional swings?
There are three practical takeaways, I think.
First, it's completely normal to struggle to think clearly when emotions are strong. In these situations, it's okay to just ride it out, because the emotion will not last forever, it will come down because that's what emotions do; waves crest and then recede. But if the strong emotion is nudging you to do impulsive things that might have negative consequences (like binge eating, self-injury, aggressive behavior toward someone else, drug/alcohol use), then using sensory or behavioral strategies is your best bet. Take a shower, go for a run, hold an ice cube in your hand and let it melt, suck on a lemonhead. A former client of mine used to do handstands to feel all the blood rush to her head as a way to change up how she felt in the moment. Progressive muscle relaxation could be helpful, grounding activities are great in these situations, too. Basically, the idea is to get yourself into your body and find a way to focus your mind on your body in the moment, to help stop those irrational emotional thoughts from telling you what to do. One exception is if your emotional thoughts are telling you that you're in danger and there is objective evidence that you are in actual danger — in that case, listen to your feelings and get the heck out!
Second, after the emotion has come back down and you're below your thinking threshold, then make an active effort to use cognitive strategies, including reappraisal. Clinically, what we have seen is that when some people get below their thinking threshold, they pivot to ruminating or worrying, which just exacerbates their emotions and sometimes pushes them back above the thinking threshold again. So, when you can think clearly, try to engage in some perspective-taking, problem-solving, or reflection on the experience — what can be learned from the emotion? Some people are so afraid of their feelings that they successfully use behavioral strategies to lower their emotional intensity, and then try to distract themselves or escape from the emotion entirely. That's not a good idea because it means the message from the emotion is never heard. It's kind of like leaving the house with the wailing baby in it when no one is there to take care of the baby — the baby won't forget that. The next time it will wail louder and harder. It's better to return to the feeling and process it when it's less intense.
Third, and finally, emotional swings might feel really awful and scary, but having emotions isn't actually a bad thing. People who are more emotionally sensitive, who experience a wide range of emotions, tend to be passionate and caring people! Because emotions help us connect to others, people who have strong feelings are also capable of amazing relationships — if those relationships are with people who have compassion and understanding for those who might feel emotions more intensely than the average person. Part of the reason that people struggle with swings in emotion is in not accepting them. Yes, there are strategies to help make those emotional swings easier to tolerate and have fewer negative consequences, but accepting that human beings are emotional creatures and emotions are often helpful can go a long way.
Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on emotion regulation go in the future?
In the future, we plan to actually get some data on the thinking threshold idea. We have developed a semi-structured interview to assess a variety of emotional processes in clients and are incorporating the thinking threshold into the interview. We are also currently running an ecological momentary assessment study that involves sending people random notifications on their cell phones to ask them what they are doing and how they are feeling in their daily lives. In that study, we are asking people about the type and intensity of emotions they are feeling when they receive the notification, and we're asking them how clearly they are thinking at the moment. Nothing from the study is published yet, but an initial peek at the data suggests that, as we expected, people report a much greater difficulty thinking clearly when their emotions are stronger.
In the future, I'd like to see emotion regulation research emphasize contextual variability a lot more. In what situations is cognitive reappraisal really helpful, and for whom? What kinds of emotional situations are important to accept and experience, and when is it better to try to change the emotion you're feeling? Basically, I would like emotion regulation research to focus more on understanding emotion regulation flexibility.