DBT Skills for Emotional Regulation

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Introduction


Dialectical Behavior Therapy, often referred to as DBT, is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy initially created to assist people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

It has since been adapted for a range of other conditions, including eating disorders, substance use disorders, and depression.

DBT combines standard cognitive-behavioral techniques with concepts of mindfulness and acceptance, promoting a balanced approach to managing emotions.

Emotional regulation is a crucial component of DBT, as it equips individuals with skills to understand and manage their emotional responses.


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Identify and Label Emotions


Identifying and labeling emotions is the first step in emotional regulation. It is the process of recognizing what emotion you are experiencing and giving it a name, such as "anger," "joy," "fear," or "sadness." This process is important for several reasons:

  • It helps create a distance between you and your emotions, allowing you to react less impulsively and more thoughtfully.

  • It aids in understanding your emotions, which is crucial in learning how to manage them effectively.

  • It validates your emotional experience, which can reduce distress and feelings of isolation.


Step-by-Step Guide on How to Identify and Label Emotions


  • Pause and Reflect - Take a moment to tune into yourself. Notice what's happening within you without trying to change it.

  • Body Scan - Pay attention to physical sensations. Emotions often manifest physically, such as a racing heart with anxiety or a heavy feeling in the chest with sadness.

  • Name the Emotion - Once you've identified what you're feeling, give it a name. Try to be as specific as possible. For instance, instead of saying you feel "bad," you might identify that you feel "frustrated" or "lonely."

  • Accept the Emotion - Acknowledge that it's okay to have this emotion. Remember, all emotions are valid and part of the human experience.

  • Record Your Emotion - Consider keeping an emotion diary. Writing down your emotions can help you see patterns and gain deeper insights into your emotional life.


Example - Imagine you're in a meeting at work, and a colleague criticizes your proposal. You feel a rush of heat in your face and a tightening in your stomach. 

Instead of reacting immediately, you take a moment to identify and label your emotion: "I'm feeling embarrassed and defensive."

Exercise - For one week, set aside a few minutes each day to practice identifying and labeling your emotions. You could do this at a set time each day, or whenever you notice a strong emotional reaction. 

Write down the emotion you identified, what triggered it, and any physical sensations you noticed. Over time, this exercise can help you become more adept at recognizing and naming your emotions.


Practicing Mindfulness to Current Emotion


Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.

It's about observing what's happening right now, both inside and outside of ourselves.

In the context of emotional regulation, mindfulness plays a crucial role:

  • Mindfulness allows us to notice our emotions as they arise, which is the first step towards managing them effectively.

  • By observing our emotions without judgment, we can create a space between the emotion and our reaction to it, reducing impulsivity.



Guide on Practicing Mindfulness in Response to Current Emotion


  • Notice the Emotion - Pay attention to what you're feeling right now. Try to do this without judging the emotion or trying to change it.

  • Observe the Emotion - Once you've identified the emotion, observe it as if you were a neutral third party. Notice where in your body you feel the emotion, and any thoughts or memories associated with it.

  • Describe the Emotion - Put words to what you're experiencing. This could be as simple as saying to yourself, "I'm feeling anxious" or "I'm experiencing sadness."

  • Allow the Emotion - Let the emotion be there without trying to push it away or hold onto it. Imagine it like a wave, coming and going.

  • Return to the Present Moment - Once you've acknowledged and allowed the emotion, bring your attention back to the present moment. This could involve focusing on your breath, the sensations in your body, or the sounds around you.


Exercise 1: Mindful Breathing

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breath. Notice the sensation of breathing in and breathing out. In case your thoughts start to stray, subtly steer them back towards your breathing. Engage in this exercise for several minutes daily.


Exercise 2: Mindful Observation of Emotions

When you notice a strong emotion, take a moment to observe it with curiosity. Notice where in your body you feel the emotion, and any thoughts or memories associated with it. Try to do this without judging the emotion or trying to change it.


Exercise 3: Mindful Acceptance of Emotions

Practice allowing your emotions to be there without trying to push them away or hold onto them. Imagine your emotions like waves in the ocean, coming and going. Practice this acceptance with all emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant.


Opposite Action


Opposite Action is a skill derived from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that involves consciously choosing to act in a way that's contrary to what your emotions are compelling you to do.

This technique is particularly useful when emotions don't match the reality of a situation or when acting on them would be ineffective or harmful.

By practicing Opposite Action, you can regulate overwhelming emotions, improve your mood, and make more effective decisions.


Guide on How to Apply Opposite Action Skill


  • Identify the Emotion - Recognize the emotion you're experiencing and its associated action urge.

  • Assess the Emotion - Determine whether the emotion and its intensity fit the facts of the situation, and if the action urge will lead to a positive outcome.

  • Choose Opposite Action - If the emotion doesn't fit the facts or acting on it would be unhelpful, decide on an action that is opposite to your emotional impulse.

  • Commit to the Opposite Action - Fully engage in the chosen opposite action with your thoughts, words, and actions.


Example: If you're feeling angry with someone but know that expressing your anger won't be productive, you might choose the opposite action of calming yourself down and addressing the issue respectfully.

Exercise: Next time you experience a strong emotion, try using the Opposite Action skill. Identify the emotion and its action urge, assess whether they are appropriate, and if not, choose and commit to an opposite action. Reflect on how this affects your emotional state.


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Conclusion


Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) offers an effective toolbox for emotional regulation.

These skills, which include understanding the function of emotions, checking the facts, focusing on positive experiences, and applying strategies like opposite action and mindfulness, are invaluable for managing intense emotions.

They decrease our vulnerability to negative emotions, reduce their frequency, and help us respond more effectively to emotional situations.

DBT's emphasis on balancing acceptance with change encourages individuals to not only acknowledge their feelings but also take proactive steps toward emotional health.


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June 18th, 2024

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