Strategies for Staying Sane: Using an Emotional Thermometer

Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus


Ronnie was inclined to fly off the handle. She was hypersensitive and tended to respond with exaggerated emotion to most situations. A close relative commented: “Just about everything about Ronnie adds up to an eleven on a ten point scale.” Sometimes a deceptively simple method enables over-reactive people to respond appropriately.


People tend to magnify situations, resulting in needless misery, anxiety and emotional upsets.

How do most of us go about disturbing ourselves? Mainly by making mountains out of molehills. Instead of recognizing that something is merely annoying, or irritating, or frustrating, and responding appropriately, we blow up the incident or event and feel dreadful.

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Ronnie offers a typical example: When her in-laws came to dinner, her mother-in-law commented that the mashed potatoes were lumpy. Even if the lady were a carping critic, surely this put-down should not warrant more than a tinge of irritation in Ronnie. But instead, she made herself feel terribly hurt and insulted.

We recommend that you

  • use an “emotional thermometer,” with a scale from zero to 100.

Zero means that everything is going well, there’s no undue tension. 100 units denotes something truly life threatening and catastrophic.

So how many points are warranted for the remark by Ronnie’s mother-in-law? Surely no more than five to ten. But Ronnie seemed to give it a rating of ninety-five! Similarly, when her six-year-old son was given a detention for using curse words in class, Ronnie gave it a rating of fifty to seventy units. Had Ronnie been one of our patients, we’d have urged her to calibrate events so that she would stop over reacting.

The process is quite simple but can be very effective:

  • Whenever you feel upset, ask yourself to come up with a logical number on the emotional thermometer.

Ask yourself if the strength of your feeling is a ten, more than twenty or thirty, or maybe as high as sixty or seventy.

One of our clients said: “Whenever I am feeling angry or upset I have learned to ask myself if I am reacting or over-reacting. This helps me come up with a rational number which, in turn, changes my feelings because the number is usually less than I thought!”

Mislabeling is the problem. To call something awful, dreadful, or terrible, when it is merely rather troublesome, will cause you to over-react. “As you think, so shall you feel.” So the next time you are upset over something,

  • try to obtain an appropriate number on the emotional thermometer and see if you find yourself feeling less upset.


Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus is a licensed psychologist, Co-founder and Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute. In addition to his general psychotherapy practice, Dr. Clifford Lazarus specializes in health and neuropsychology.

Dr. Clifford Lazarus received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University where he was a Henry Rutgers Research Scholar.  Seen here are excerpts from one of his books, The 60-Second Shrink – 101 Strategies For Staying Sane In a Crazy World, a book, he co-authored with his father “One of the ten most influential psychotherapists in America”  Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D.  For more details on Dr. Clifford Lazarus visit this link to The Lazarus Institute.  Or visit his page here on

Books available at Amazon by Arnold and Clifford Lazarus

Direct links to two highly recommended books by Dr. Clifford Lazarus & Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus:

The 60-Second Shrink: 101 Strategies for Staying Sane in a Crazy World 

Don’t Believe It for a Minute!: Forty Toxic Ideas That Are Driving You Crazy

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