By: Gina Henschen – MA, LPCC
DBT Skills for Emotional Regulation
Emotions can be tough to manage, especially when we are under stress or in crisis. When faced with a challenging situation, we may not always react as mindfully as we would like. We may say things we regret, hurt the people we love, or engage in behaviors that might feel good in the moment but are detrimental in the long run. This is where DBT skills can help.
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a therapeutic modality that helps clients learn how to respond to distressing situations in a more mindful manner. The good news is that you don’t have to invest in therapy to try out DBT skills for yourself – you can start by applying some of these skills to your everyday life, right now.
What is DBT?
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is an off-shoot of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) created by psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan in the 1980s. DBT focuses on balancing acceptance and change – two seemingly opposite concepts that, when integrated, promote well-being. DBT teaches us that in order for change to occur, we first need to accept certain realities and circumstances of our lives.
DBT consists of four main pillars: mindfulness and distress tolerance (which fall within the “acceptance” sphere), and emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness (which fall within the “change” sphere). Each pillar has its own set of DBT skills designed to support the client’s well-being. Just like any skill, DBT skills take practice but can eventually be mastered, especially with the help of a trained therapist.
Why is DBT Useful?
DBT is useful in treating a variety of conditions including borderline personality disorder and eating disorders, as well as self-harm and suicidal ideation. However, DBT skills can be easily applied to everyday life for just about anybody.
Drawing on Zen concepts, DBT teaches us that pain and suffering are an inevitable part of life. However, we can learn how to move through this pain with the help of certain skills. Here are five DBT skills to start incorporating in your day-to-day life:
1. Wise Mind
This is the foundation for all the other DBT skills, so be sure to prioritize learning this one first! Wise Mind means striking a balance between the Rational Mind (logic, facts, reason) and Emotional Mind (feelings, reactions, emotions). When we tap into Wise Mind, we are able to access our inner wisdom and respond to situations in a calm, wise manner.
Try getting into Wise Mind when you are already calm. Take a few deep breaths and notice what you are experiencing in your body. Continue breathing, and as you inhale, silently say to yourself: “Wise.” As you exhale, silently say to yourself: “Mind.” Continue to sync this mantra with your breath.
Make sure to practice getting into Wise Mind a few times a week. When a difficult situation arises, remember to go back to your breath and access the Wise Mind within you. Pause before reacting, then respond from Wise Mind.
This is an acronym that’s useful for slowing down a response to a distressing situation. It stands for:
- S- Stop
- T- Take a step back
- O- Observe
- P- Proceed mindfully
Of course, if there is a life-threatening emergency, this is not the skill to use. But if you are faced with an emotionally-charged situation and tempted to respond in a non-wise manner, remember to STOP first before reacting.
Another acronym, the TIPP skill is designed to take your body from a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state to a parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state. When we are in a parasympathetic state, we feel calmer and can respond to distressing situations more mindfully. Try using some or all of these techniques when you are feeling overwhelmed by emotions:
- T- Temperature. It’s common to feel hot when upset or angry. You can effectively kick your body into a parasympathetic state by splashing cold water on your face, putting a cold compress on your cheeks, or submerging your face into a bowl of cold water for 10-15 seconds. The latter activates what is known as the “dive reflex,” the same feeling you get as if you were diving into a body of water. This forces your breathing to slow down, activating that “rest-and-digest” state.
- I- Intense exercise. Bust out a power round of push-ups, take a jog around the block, do jumping jacks — whatever you can do to get your heart rate up, your aggression out, and your body feeling wiped afterwards.
- P- Paced breathing. “Take some deep breaths” might sound like a cliché suggestion, but it truly does wonders for relaxation. Breathing in a consistent and steady manner tells your body to slow down and relax. Make sure your exhale is longer than your inhale, as the exhale is what activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Try inhaling for 6 counts and exhaling for 8 counts, then repeat. As you breathe, make sure to breathe into your belly rather than your chest; this will deepen your sense of relaxation.
- P- Paired muscle relaxation. When paired with deep breathing, this skill can help further promote a sense of calm. Focus on tensing then relaxing one muscle group in your body at a time. For example, start by clenching your feet for five seconds, then slowly release and let those muscles relax. Then move up to your leg muscles, your abdomen, hands, arms, and face. Notice how you feel after letting go of the tenseness.
4. Opposite Action
Did you know you can actually change your mood by changing your actions? You may have experienced this before by watching a comedy when you’re sad, going for a walk with a friend when you feel like isolating, or hitting the gym when you want to lay in bed all day. Opposite action is all about engaging in the opposite behavior of what you feel like doing in order to promote a greater sense of well-being.
The next time you have an urge to engage in a familiar yet destructive behavior, STOP. Then, from Wise Mind, choose an opposite action. Tempted to reach for the booze? Try meditating or doing some yoga to alleviate your stress instead. On the verge of lashing out at your partner? Maybe embrace them in a hug. After engaging in opposite action, notice how you feel — physically and emotionally.
5. Willing Hands/Half Smile
The mind and body are intrinsically connected, and changing your posture and facial expression can have a huge impact on your mood. Have you ever noticed that you clench your fists or jaw when you’re angry? Try gently placing your hands on your lap, palms facing up. This creates a relaxed state and communicates to your brain that it’s OK to relax. Similarly, try gently turning your mouth up into a subtle half-smile and taking some deep breaths through your nose. Notice how changing your facial expression affects your mood.
Emotions are a normal and healthy part of the human experience. Keep in mind, however, that you are not your emotions, and that you don’t have to act on every emotionally-charged urge that arises. If you feel like your emotions are ruling your life, try one of these DBT skills. With practice, they may eventually become second nature.