Set Your Emotional Thermostat

“The wishbone will never replace the backbone.”  Will Henry

 Richard and his wife Serene camped on an idyllic Maui beach.  Larry, swimming at the same beach, overheard Serene telling Richard her worries; he watched Richard keep his cool and repeatedly lead his wife back to a calm state with reassuring words and shoulder massages. Over the day, Richard’s patience grew thin; Serene’s worries persisted. Finally reaching his boiling point, Richard shouted, “Relax, Serene!”

Larry fully appreciated the irony of the exchange.  The phrase “Relax, Serene!” became family code, saying in a fun way, “Careful, you’re getting out of control.”

Just as laughter is contagious, so, too, are emotions.  First Serene caught Richard’s calm, then Richard caught Serene’s anxiety.

Your feelings are important because emotions drive motion.  Feelings are like your own GPS system, telling you where and when to turn.  You have different thoughts and make different choices when you feel loved than when you feel scared or angry.

We are wired to automatically adjust our own emotions so they’re closer to the surrounding emotional climate.  If you spend time with someone who’s happy, you tend to feel happier even if you started out sad.

Pain triggers the fight or flight system, activating fear and anxiety.  Unless you actively resist, human nature pulls you into this emotional chaos just as water runs downhill.

Resist the pull.  You can override your automatic programming and take control over your emotional thermostat with these three easy steps:

  • First, take your own pulse.
  • Smile.
  • Keep the calm and avoid the chaos. 
  • Say with words and actions, “I get how you’re feeling.”

Step 1.  First, take your own pulse.

The voice over the hospital intercom insisted, “Code blue.  830 East.”

I was a wet-behind-the-ears medical student and my own heart pounded as I raced up the stairs to the cardiac arrest. By the time I arrived,  the room was a sea of white coats.

I stood next to my teaching resident leaning against the wall.  He looked at me and  asked, “What’s the very first thing you do when you arrive at a code?”

My thoughts raced.

“First,” he said, “Take your own pulse.”

My resident was advising me to check in with myself and say, “You are here on the emotional thermostat.”  You can do the same when you’re around others.

How Doctors Deal with Patients’ Pain

 To avoid burning out, doctors and nurses learn to maintain professional distance.  They learn the skill of disengaging mirror neurons; it’s like walking around the house covering the mirrors.  This is much easier to unplug from a stranger than from someone you love, explaining why doctors don’t treat family.  You can learn to unplug mirror neurons, too.  Pretend you’re in the corner of the room, watching yourself.  Any time you can witness yourself having an experience you disengage mirror neurons.

Step 2.  Smile.

When I became a mom, a wise matriarch said, “Before you go in to comfort your crying baby, put on a smile.”

Charles Darwin was the first to notice that the path between your body and your mood is a two-way street.  Your mood changes your facial expression AND your facial expression changes your mood.

Before you enter the room, especially if someone in that room is in pain:

  1.   Breath.
  2.   Put a smile on your face.
  3.   Pull out a thought that makes you smile on the inside.  Maybe it’s your kid’s laughter, a beautiful sunset or a soft kitten.

Step 3.  Keep the calm and avoid the chaos.

Here are some strategies that decrease your vulnerability to catching both colds and unwanted feelings.  You’ll recognize the list as your grandmother’s advice.

1.  Say to yourself regularly, “I keep the calm.”

2.  Breathe.

3.  Get enough to eat and drink.

4.  Stay rested.

5.  Surround yourself with people who value you.

6.  Take a break as needed.

7.  Exercise

You have the greatest chance of helping when you’re calm; you run the greatest risk of harming when you’re in the grip of fear.

All physical pain has an emotional component.  Fear and anxiety increase the intensity of pain; joy and love make the pain better.

Avoid This Big Mistake

A common strategy of getting to calm does great harm.  I’m embarrassed to say I do it myself.

It’s trying to talk the other person out of their experience.  Comments like “It’s not that bad.” or “Don’t cry.” or “You can’t hurt. You just got the medication.” make things worse.

A few months after her breast cancer diagnosis my friend Suzy was in a state of panic. She just got a medical bill for several thousand dollars for a lab test.

I said to her calmly, “Suzy, don’t worry.  This is just a billing error. I was with you when you got the counseling for this test, and the form you signed said they would call you if your out-of-pocket expense was more than $200.”

It’s as if Suzy had not heard me.  “Maybe I’ll put it on the credit card, and pay it off over 6 months. “  I spoke with a louder voice, and that just turned up Suzy’s volume. By the end of the exchange, both of us were upset.

I made two mistakes that made things worse. First, I dismissed Suzy’s fear by saying, “Don’t worry.”  Second, I turned up the volume of my voice.

A more helpful response would have been, “Oh, Suzy, I know how bills keep you up at night.”   Whenever you say, “I get how you’re feeling,” it breaks the spell.  Then I could have calmly asked whether I could help sort out the clerical error.

The next time you catch someone try to discount, minimize or dismiss a feeling, see what happens.  Maybe they’re disappointed when a door of opportunity closes, and they try to convince themselves, “No big deal.  It wasn’t really that important.” It’s like holding a beach ball under water.  They would move on more quickly by saying, “What a disappointment!”

This strategy almost always makes things worse.

Whenever you say, “I get how you’re feeling,”  you make things better and move the emotional thermostat in the direction of calm.

A Script for Emotionally Intelligent Conversations 

Emotional intelligence–the ability to identify and regulate emotions–supports success.  Here’s how to have more emotionally-intelligent conversations with yourself and with others.

1. Identify the emotion.  Ask, “What are you feeling right now?”   Once you name the feeling, things almost magically get better.  

2. Remove judgment about emotions.  Remind yourself, “There aren’t any right feelings or wrong feelings.”  Some emotions are more comfortable than others; they always pass.

3. Act in acceptable ways.  The best way to get over a feeling is to go through it. Express your feelings in ways that help and not harm. 

Summary: Set the emotional thermostat


  • Emotions drive motion.
  • First, take your own pulse.
  • Smile.
  • Keep the calm and avoid the chaos. 
  • Say with words and actions, “I get how you’re feeling.”