DBT Emotion Regulation Skills: How to Cope with Intense Feelings
Emotions can be tough. We all have different reactions to things, and that’s completely normal. Adults may feel frustrated while stuck in traffic while kids might feel disappointed after failing a test. Sometimes we have outbursts of intense feelings depending on the life situation we are going through. DBT emotion regulation skills can help us control and manage our feelings in more appropriate ways so we can express them healthily.
Let’s further understand how emotion regulation works.
What is DBT Emotion Regulation?
Emotional regulation is essentially an individual’s ability to exert control over their emotions through different approaches. Some people can regulate their emotions better than others. This is because they have developed an awareness of their internal experiences and how this might affect the feelings of others.
DBT emotion regulation is the third module in dialectical behavior therapy, building off of two other modules (mindfulness and distress tolerance). It teaches individuals how to manage overwhelming or negative emotions while increasing positive experiences.
In DBT emotion regulation, patients are first taught to identify and label emotions. Patients then get coaching on how to be mindful of current emotions and actions. They then get both individual DBT therapy sessions and group DBT settings distress tolerance techniques to correct any destructive behavior that would normally arise from overwhelming emotions.
What are DBT Emotion Regulation Skills?
There are three goals in the DBT emotional regulation module: understand one’s emotions, decrease emotional vulnerability, and reduce emotional suffering. These are broad categories of skills that can be learned using specific techniques.
First is understanding and labeling emotions. Patients are taught to use specific language in labeling their emotions, such as “frustrated” or “anxious.” This is more helpful than saying one “feels bad,” which is vague and difficult to define and manage. Patients also learn how to distinguish between primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are our initial reactions to events, while secondary emotions are reactions to our thoughts and feelings.
Other skills in DBT emotion regulation include reducing emotional vulnerability by building on positive experiences in life. Individuals are encouraged to plan out one or two activities that they can look forward to daily and engage in mindfully.
The last part of this module is about decreasing emotional suffering, which is made up of two skills: letting go and taking opposite action.
We’ll go into more detail on how these skills can be applied.
The Importance of Emotion Regulation Skills
Emotion regulation skills can help us pause between what we feel and our reactions to these feelings. These skills help us slow down and then act more objectively after we have assessed our feelings. These may include primary or even secondary feelings like anger. For instance, a child who yells and hits their friends has less developed emotion regulation skills than a child who tells the teacher about their problems instead of engaging in angry behavior.
Emotional regulation skills also give us the power to stay calm under pressure. This allows us to act objectively and avoid going against our core values and ethics.
Understanding our Emotions
Understanding our emotions is essential to emotion regulation. Every emotion that we feel serves a specific purpose. They provide us with valuable information on how to feel about a certain situation so we can react accordingly. However, our emotions are not always accurate assessors of our experiences. It is here where it is valuable to pause and understand our emotions more thoroughly so we can regulate and respond in the best way.
Whenever you notice that you are experiencing a certain emotion, try to observe it without judgment. Some emotions might be more unpleasant than others, but each one is valuable. As you begin to understand what the emotion is telling you, you can then decide whether to listen to it or to let it go.
DBT Emotion Regulation Skills
Developing emotional regulation skills is best done with an integrated approach. Below are a few skills that you can try. Figure out which combination of strategies work the best for you.
ABC PLEASE skills are meant to decrease your vulnerability to experiencing unpleasant or unwanted emotions.
Accumulate Positive Experience: “A” stands for accumulating positive experiences. It is important to regularly participate in activities that you enjoy as well as setting and working toward long-term goals.
Build Mastery: “B” stands for building mastery. This is a skill that encourages us to constantly improve our talents and ourselves. Building mastery can help us feel successful and accomplished, which in turn makes us feel more confident and able to succeed in other areas.
Cope Ahead: “C” stands for cope ahead, which helps us prepare in advance for uncomfortable situations. This helps us decrease anxiety before and throughout the uncomfortable experience. One common example is studying before taking a test.
Physical Illness: It is important to treat physical illness to allow us to pay attention to our emotions properly.
Eating: Balanced eating allows us to regulate our moods more effectively.
Avoid Mood-Altering Drugs: Avoiding non-prescribed mood-altering drugs can keep us in control of our emotions.
Sleep: Balanced sleep also regulates mood.
Exercise: Getting enough exercise can improve our emotions significantly.
PLEASE skills are guidelines we can follow to help us take care of our physical health, which is closely linked to our mental health. Caring for our bodies increases the likelihood of a positive emotional experience.
DBT Check the Facts Skills
The Check the Facts skill is one that guides us to think before reacting to our emotions. It allows us to take a step back, assess, and decide if what we are feeling is appropriate given the situation. The Check the Facts skill asks if the way that you are feeling about a situation is factual to find a fitting response.
You can use mindfulness to build an awareness of your thoughts and emotions. Use words to describe your experience and the corresponding emotion without judging, reacting, or attaching any labels to your feelings. Next, you can ask yourself if the factual situation justifies the intensity of the feeling response. Ask yourself questions, such as “What is the emotion I want to change?” and “Do my assumptions or interpretations of events fit the facts?”
DBT Problem Solving
The DBT Problem Solving skill is extremely useful once you have determined that you have a problem that needs to be solved. When we experience unpleasant emotions resulting from the actions of others or situations we cannot change, we can then collect information and take steps to solve the problem in front of us.
First, define the problem in detail. Then, describe how the problem interferes with your goals or what you want to happen. Issues that do not interfere with your goals are likely not your problems. List down all the alternatives or options that you have and weigh the consequences of each. Have at least three potential solutions; this helps to avoid black-and-white thinking.
Identify the steps you need to take action and how you will execute them. Evaluate the results. If you successfully solved the problem, make sure to give yourself some credit! If the problem was not resolved, then learn more about what is needed to solve the issue until you can fix it.
DBT Ride the Wave
Emotions, especially intense ones, can feel like a rollercoaster ride that isn’t always pleasant or fun. Learning how to ride the wave of rising and falling emotions can help you self-regulate and cope with intense feelings. First, be aware of the emotion and recognize it is something you are feeling rather than something that defines you. Allow yourself to experience the feeling while maintaining this awareness. Remember that the feeling is only a part of you, not your whole being. Then, accept and tolerate your emotion. Try not to assign positive or negative attributes to the feeling. Instead, accept that the feeling is part of you at the moment but recognize that it is only temporary.
DBT Opposite Action Skills
One of the skills that DBT teaches us is how to take the opposite action. We are hardwired to respond to our emotions in a certain way, but we can also take the opposite action to form a more appropriate response. For instance, we might initially respond to the fear of failure with panic, but the opposite action would have us remain calm and wait for the outcome.
The Bottom Line
In order to control your emotions, you can use some of the skills listed above. Each skill may be more effective for some people than others. Some people may experience results quickly while others may not; the key here is consistency. Incorporating basic grounding strategies and using tools like DBT worksheets can help you adapt emotion regulation skills into your life. Trust the process as you go along, and never give up.