This is part two of a six-part blog series based on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a highly researched set of practical tools to help manage emotions and crises as well as replace old, ineffective behaviors with new, effective ones. Many individuals seeking DBT therapy desire support for their disrupted lives as well as skills to successfully navigate their complex situations independently.
In part one of this blog series, I wrote about the mindfulness element of DBT. This blog post will focus on another one of the four elements called emotional regulation. Because emotions are an essential aspect of our existence, it is imperative that we learn how to regulate and manage them in order to live healthy lives.
Emotions are not meant to control our existence. But too easily and too often, they do just that. When negative emotions take over our mindset, they can get in the way of experiencing joy. They can be time-consuming, exhausting, and completely overwhelming. They can damage relationships or keep us from achieving our goals.
However, when managed properly, even difficult emotions can be beneficial. Emotions can be signals that something, whether inside or outside us, is not right and needs to be addressed. Not only that, but relationships are also strengthened by sharing emotions in a healthy way.
Many of my clients have benefitted from the emotional regulation skills of DBT. At its core, emotional regulation means identifying your own feelings and staying in charge of them. According to Marsha Linehan, the original developer of DBT, there are three major functions of emotions: 1) to motivate us toward action; 2) to communicate to others; and 3) to communicate to ourselves.
Without proper emotional regulation, emotions cannot fully function as they are intended. As illogical as it may be, many people attempt to shut down or completely avoid their emotions. However, experience shows us that this simply does not work. This is why learning to effectively regulate emotions is essential to living a healthy, happy, and drama-free life.
Being emotionless is not an option, so learning how to manage emotions is a necessity. Often times people push away, avoid, or invalidate their own emotions hoping they will magically disappear. Although most of us realize this will likely not work, many people still attempt this route. Ignoring emotion actually produces the opposite of its intended effect: it creates more problems for the individual. Emotion is stored inside us for an eventual melt down as mounting emotions look for a way to discharge.
One pillar of emotional regulation includes surfing the wave of emotion by observing the emotion, being mindful of your body, remembering you are not your emotion, radically accepting your emotion, and validating your emotion. Understanding what you are feeling and how the emotion(s) came into existence is an important task in emotional regulation. Ask yourself what triggered you to react with intense emotion. What tends to happen before you are triggered? Are you tired, anxious, or frustrated?
Identifying and discovering ways to lower the intensity of emotions, while considering how to change them, is another valuable approach to handle emotions well. For example, if you struggle with anxiety, naming the anxiety and identifying what causes (or triggers) the anxiety to intensify is a great start. Implementing DBT distress tolerance skills is another option for managing intense emotions. We will discuss distress tolerance skills in more depth via a future post in this DBT blog series.
For a number of my clients, learning to use these skills has helped them slow their racing thoughts long enough to stop and think before acting impulsively. Once you are aware of your thoughts and feelings, as well as what you can do to help (and not harm) the situation, you can make a wise decision without being swayed by negative emotion. For example, if you feel triggered and hurt by someone, emotion may tell you to react and lash out. This can have serious consequences. Instead, viscerally feel your emotions while also taking control of them. This may allow you to have a chance to improve your situation.
Remember – emotions are powerful, but they are not your enemy; they are quite the opposite. With the right tools and support, you can begin to see your emotions work for and not against you in your daily life. No matter what, learning to regulate emotions can only help you feel better about yourself as well as help you improve your relationships. There is little to lose and much to gain by learning to skillfully regulate your emotions!
Linehan, Marsha. DBT Skills Training Manual. Guilford, 2015.