Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – Part 5 – 6 Tips to Cope with Big Emotions

Welcome back! This is the fifth part of a six-part series based on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Many individuals seeking DBT therapy arrive in counseling searching for relief from their difficult circumstances. They hope to find internal tools they can use to manage complex lives and relationships. They particularly seek out DBT because it is an evidence-based system that focuses on understanding and managing emotions. While learning emotional regulation skills, individuals also aim to change dysfunctional reactions to life circumstances into more helpful responses. 

Below is a brief overview of six tips you can utilize to aid in this process:

1) Be mindful of current emotions

Managing feelings begins with recognizing that avoiding strong or difficult emotions does not work. It only serves to intensify the emotion giving it more power. Avoiding emotions actually increases suffering. The only way to release emotions is to experience them. Trying the following skills can be helpful: Sit still and be mindful of your emotions. Observe what you are experiencing by describing your emotion and noticing how it feels in your body (i.e., body sensations). You will likely feel a strong urge or impulse to stop the emotion; try to resist this. Emotions often go as quickly as they came, if we give them space to do so.

2) Try the 0-10 distress rating scale

Check in with yourself using a 0-10 distress rating scale, where 0 is neutral or calm and 10 is the most extreme or intense emotion you have ever felt. Identifying the intensity of your current emotion will allow you to determine the next course of action. Sometimes, just using a scale can calm you because you realize your pain is not as great as your mind is making it out to be. I often guide my clients in using this scale to create a safety plan for themselves as they develop effective coping skills.

3) Give distress tolerance skills a try

After you identify the intensity of your emotion, continue by using distress tolerance skills to manage the emotion you are experiencing in the moment. I often teach five distress tolerance skills that serve as positive distractions and help clients self-sooth with all five senses. For example, if you feel overwhelmed, try holding some ice to cool your warm body. The emotion will not necessarily go away, but you will achieve your goal if you get through the moment without making it worse!

4) Utilize emotional regulation skills to manage emotion

This may be the end of your coping journey; many of my clients find they are able to solve the problem that led to their difficult emotion using the skills mentioned above. If you find that is not your experience, don’t worry. Try changing your thoughts about the situation in the present moment using emotional regulation skills. Engage in self-care for your body and strive toward having healthy life experiences so your mind does not notice emotion as intensely.

5) Practice, practice, practice

If the DBT skills you have tried are not working to lower the intensity of your emotion, check in to see if you are using the skills appropriately. In other words, try them one more time and follow them to the best of your ability. Consider whether you are doing the skills long enough and practicing them frequently enough to make a real difference. Maybe you can ask a trusted individual like a family member or friend to work through the skills with you. Lastly, pay attention to your environment and how it may be reinforcing old patterns.

6) Finally, trust the process

When you experience difficult emotions, especially at an intense frequency, it can be difficult to avoid falling into previous patterns of dysfunctional coping. It can be discouraging when the skills you have learned are not taking effect at the rate that you desire or need. Know that you are not alone if this is your experience. Like any learned habit, it takes time to see the full benefits. Remain hopeful that the process can work for you and continue to put in the work.


It is important to note that this is a basic overview of DBT skills.  These skills can help you have a plan for effective ways to process your complex situations and emotions. Ultimately, taking a step back, becoming aware of your intense emotions, utilizing self-soothing and emotion regulation techniques, maintaining consistency, and believing the process can work will benefit your life and relationships. Having control over your reactions is often a greater reward than the cost of your time learning the techniques. It is recommended that you research more about these tips individually so you can successfully implement them into your life. Happy skills training!



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