Emotion Regulation in Dialectical Behavior Therapy

GoodTherapy | Emotion Regulation in Dialectical Behavior TherapyThe third module of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is emotion regulation, which teaches clients how to manage negative and overwhelming emotions while increasing their positive experiences. This module encompasses three goals:

  1. Understand one’s emotions
  2. Reduce emotional vulnerability
  3. Decrease emotional suffering

An important aspect of emotion regulation is understanding that negative emotions are not bad, or something that must be avoided. They are a normal part of life, but there are ways to acknowledge and then let go of these feelings so that one is not controlled by them.

Often, clients with extreme emotional sensitivity go through cycles that begin with an event that triggers automatic negative thoughts. These thoughts then prompt an extreme or adverse emotional response, which may subsequently lead to destructive behavioral choices. The detrimental behavior is then followed by more negative emotions, such as shame and self-loathing.

Understanding and Labeling Emotions
The first skill in emotion regulation involves recognizing and naming emotions. Clients are taught to use descriptive labels such as “frustrated” or “anxious,” rather than general terms like “feeling bad,” because vaguely defined feelings are much more difficult to manage.

Another important distinction is that of primary and secondary emotions. A primary emotion is the initial reaction to an event, or to triggers in one’s environment, while a secondary emotion is a reaction to one’s thoughts, i.e., feeling depressed about having gotten angry. Secondary emotions are often destructive, making an individual more vulnerable to unhealthy behaviors. Therefore, in addition to naming both primary and secondary emotions, it is important for clients to learn to accept their primary emotion without judging themselves for experiencing it.

In DBT skills sessions, group leaders also discuss myths about emotions, such as the misconception that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to feel in certain situations. An additional topic is the purpose that emotions serve—which is to alert us that something in our environment is either beneficial or problematic. These emotional responses are stored in memory, and we are then more prepared when encountering similar situations in the future. Additionally, our emotions communicate messages to others through our words, facial expressions, and body language.

Reducing Emotional Vulnerability
The acronym for the first skill set in reducing emotional vulnerability is PLEASE MASTER:

PL – represents taking care of our physical health and treating pain and/or illness.

E – is for eating a balanced diet and avoiding excess sugar, fat, and caffeine.

A – stands for avoiding alcohol and drugs, which only exacerbate emotional instability.

S – represents getting regular and adequate sleep.

E – is for getting regular exercise.

MASTER – refers to doing daily activities that build confidence and competency.

The second skill designed to reduce emotional vulnerability is the building of positive experiences in order to balance life’s negative incidents and feelings. To accomplish this, clients are encouraged to plan one or more daily experiences that they can look forward to and enjoy. This might be participating in a hobby or sport, reading a book, spending time with a friend, or anything that brings the individual contentment. It is important to engage in these activities mindfully, centering attention on what one is currently doing. If an individual has difficulty focusing on the activity, he or she is advised to try something different. The client is also encouraged to identify long-term goals that will bring increased positive experiences into his or her life, such as learning a new skill or making a job change.

Decreasing Emotional Suffering
The last component of this module, decreasing emotional suffering, is comprised of two skills:

  1. Letting go
  2. Taking opposite action

Letting go refers to being aware of the current emotion through mindfulness, naming it, and then letting it go—rather than avoiding, dwelling on, or fighting it. This might involve taking a breath and visualizing the thought or feeling floating away, or picturing the emotion as a wave that comes and goes.

Taking opposite action means to engage in behaviors that would be typical when one is experiencing the emotion that is in direct contrast to the current feeling. For example, if a client is sad, he or she might try being active, standing straight, and speaking confidently—as the person would if he or she was happy. When an individual is experiencing anger, the person behaves as if he or she were calm by speaking in a soft voice and doing something nice for someone. This skill is not aimed at denying the current emotion; the individual should still name the emotion and let it go. However, acting opposite will likely lessen the length and severity of the negative feelings.

Some of the emotion-regulation skills may sound a bit vague to those unfamiliar with dialectical behavior therapy. In group sessions, DBT leaders cover these skills with clients in more detail, incorporating role playing so that the clients can transfer the new skills to situations in their own lives. Ultimately, these skills empower people to manage their emotions, rather than being managed by them.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Suzette Bray, MFT, Dialectical Behavior Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • samantha

    March 18th, 2013 at 3:55 PM

    It is hard for me because I have always tried to avoid any emotions that I felt were bad and hurtful because I didn’t want to have to deal with the hurt that I perceive that they will bring me.

    I didn’t know that avoiding those feelings, I might be able to turn from them today but eventually they are going to come back and I will have to learn to manage them sooner or later.

  • Lisa O

    March 19th, 2013 at 3:45 AM

    I know that this is a form of treatment that I could benefit from because I have a really hard time balancing how I feel with my primary emotions and secondary ones. It is like I fly off the handle so easily and I know it, but then I think that I suffer even more and feel haunted by my actions for a long time afterwards. I know that this has driven some very good people out of my life at times, but my emotions always seem to get the ebst of me and I have a hard time controlling them.

  • Caitlin

    October 18th, 2017 at 5:02 PM

    Hey! It’s okay! I’ve been in your shoes and I experience the same things! It’s nice to hear about your experience and that I’m not the only one! Know that you’re not the only one! If you would like to talk just reply or email me.

  • Chloe

    March 20th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    Could this cycling from one emotion to the enxt, especially when there are such extremities, could that ever be mistaken for bipolar disorder?

    That’s what I always think about someone when I see them going from one mood to the next.

  • liz

    January 2nd, 2015 at 6:26 AM

    I think it doesn’t really matter as DBT works very well for people with bipolar disorder and DBT teaches about taking care of physical illness and medication. The medication must be monitored regularly by a physician.
    DBT does not use labels on people.

  • donovan

    March 20th, 2013 at 12:51 PM

    SECONDARY EMOTIONS – now thats what gets me everytime! I go about most of my life events with confidence but when I think back to things I did or said I start pressuring and troubling myself. I am over critical of myself and I just cant stop it. nothing I do or say is good enough for the inner me and there is abundant criticism.

    These secondary emotions are wreaking havoc for me. dont know how to stop them or rather let them go.they are persistent and ensure my mind is troubled to no ends.

  • liz

    January 2nd, 2015 at 5:48 AM

    I can relate to that.
    What I do is stay in silence, feeling the pain and thinking like is a cloud that will pass.
    I stay very quiet because it is at that point that I can become more dysfunctional. In my case my urges are over thinking, blaming myself, going deeper into depression, isolating (if I can isolate myself more than I already am), vent like a parrot about my feelings to a person that is not safe or appropriate, like one of my kids, only to feel EVEN WORSE.
    But when I don’t do any of those and I come back to “my normal” I feel something good inside.

  • Lisa

    March 21st, 2013 at 5:40 AM

    Ladies, “It is not the things of this world that upset us, but rather, it is our THOUGHTS about those things that disturb us.” Albert Ellis..REBT
    This is why emotion regulation and distress tolerance are such important skills to learn and master. We have to purposefully change our thinking with the intent to comfort and self soothe. Essentially, You are rocking your own boat!
    When you say “I can’t” change something, that is an excuse for not doing something that is difficult. The fact is, you are indulging yourself in these negative thoughts because they vicariously fulfill a need. That need is for comfort, sympathy, and/or attention. We fulfill that need by our actions that follow our disturbing thoughts. What do we do? We feel sorry ourselves or we do something that gets us that sympathy from someone else because it is what we know, what we are used to. This is maladaptive behavior, but it is what we know! Change is unfamiliar and difficult. Logically, it makes sense but we are comforted by familiarity (aka, our maladaptive behaviors and thoughts.

  • liz

    January 2nd, 2015 at 5:34 AM

    In DBT we don’t “change” our thinking.
    We learn mindfulness and learn to listen to them and apply the DBT SKILLS to cope.

    You are not talking DBT.

  • Gigi

    October 5th, 2017 at 2:03 PM

    Liz- you are absolutely correct. Lisa is referring to techniques from REBT which does focus more on thoughts. Good observation!

  • Mary

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:36 PM

    Thank you for this well written post on Emotion Regulation! This is a nice overview of the skills taught in this module.

  • Pat E.

    February 20th, 2015 at 7:16 PM

    Very good article on emotional regulation. Thank you.

  • freya

    September 23rd, 2016 at 11:08 PM

    Felt good to learn about this treatment of emotional regulation using dialectical behaviour therapy. It really works when practiced on the regular basis by understanding and reducing emotional suffering.

  • Joan

    May 4th, 2021 at 10:08 AM

    Thank you for all the above! I am eighty four years of age. It’s never too late to “live your best life”.

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