Emotion Regulation Recap

DBT can be parted into 5 skill groups. Distress Tolerance, Mindfulness Skills, Emotion Regulation, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and Managing Anxiety. In this post, we are going to look at all the emotion regulation skills we've discussed. The key to learning new skills and remembering is repetition, so here we go! As we go over each skill name, can you bring to mind an example of each?

Emotion Regulation Skills

  1. Describing Emotions and Observing Yourself Without Judgement 

  2. Check the Facts

  3. Opposite Action

  4. Problem Solving

  5. Pleasant Events/Moments

  6. Cope Ahead

  7. Build Mastery

  8. Sleep Hygiene

  9. Avoid Mood-Altering Substances

  10. Physical Activity

  11. Balanced Eating

  12. Positive Self-Talk

  13. Gratitude Journaling

  14. Behavior Chain Analysis

  15. Balancing Thoughts and Feelings


ER and Maladaptive Behaviors

Emotion regulation is the ability to move from intense distressful emotions back to your baseline without the use of rage, self-harm, or substances. ER is the avoidance of maladaptive behaviors a.k.a behaviors that can get you into relationship trouble, physical trouble, ruin your health, and burn bridges. There's a long list of maladaptive behaviors. You might recognize a few that you need to work on. Binge eating, seeking attention, and manipulation are included in maladaptive behaviors.

Maladaptive behaviors form when someone is not able to learn appropriate coping mechanisms for distress. They manifest in place of natural development and growth in an emotional area. They are indicators that the sufferer is emotionally stunted somewhere.

Responding with rage, self-harm, substances and other maladaptive behaviors can be addictive. If we are used to always getting what we want when we cry or throw tantrums it becomes a knee-jerk reaction when a problem arises. The issue is that maladaptive behaviors only provide short-term solutions while consequences for them are usually high. We may get something through screaming and crying once but we only push people further and further away.

As mentioned before, it's never a good idea to burn bridges, even with people you may dislike now. You just never know when you'll need to cross them. And soon, after burning all these bridges, you might find yourself on an island all alone.

So, like mentioned in an earlier post, the goal of emotion regulation is to spot the fiery emotion and extinguish the power it has over you before things get out of control and it's too late.

The reason we don't want to over-regulate our emotions is that in the long run, it will lead to under regulation of the emotion. To resolve an emotion you need to go through it. There's no way to jump over or go around it. You can use distractions when you're vulnerable to react uncontrollably but eventually, you must work through the emotions to bring down their intensity.

The Two Emotions Are__________ and __________

Were you able to fill in the blanks? You may or may not remember but the two emotions are primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions can be linked to the past while secondary emotions can be linked to primary emotions. While primary emotions aren't totally unavoidable, issues arise when secondary emotions crop up from acting out of control with the primary emotion.

The first emotion regulation skill involves identifying and describing emotions. It's important to know the primary emotion and secondary emotion when you are in a severe mood. That way you can use the proper coping skills to soothe the primary emotion before running off with other secondary emotions.

Case Study

Primary emotions are often linked to the past. Marcus, with a history of feeling judged and misunderstood, is having a painful reaction to his girlfriend's father ignoring him while they are visiting his farm. He's all the way removed from his hometown where he could sneak away to unwind with a friend or get some alone time. Stuck on the farm, with all eyes on him, and his girlfriend's father being frosty, he's feeling a lot like the odd man out.

His mind wanders to his girlfriend's mom. He remembers confiding in her about his past drinking habits. He convinces himself that she must have told her husband about it and that it's her fault he's being iced out.

Now Marcus can't stop thinking of all his girlfriend's poor qualities. Ginger was no saint, so no one should be pointing fingers at him. Angry he convinces himself that he should either ignore her for the remainder of the trip, get her to talk to her dad, or duke it out with the old man. Fuming with anger, he has a strong urge to do the latter. How dare anyone judge him after all he's been through? He sees himself marching up to Ginger's father, confronting the older man, and knocking out one of his teeth if he said the wrong thing.

What is Marcus's Primary Emotion?

If you guessed feeling excluded, judged, or misunderstood, you are right. Let's take a look at how Marcus reacts if he's not using his first ER skill of observing and identifying his emotions.

Unfortunately, Marcus not evaluating his primary emotion linked to the past of feeling judged and misunderstood might just assume he's simply angry at his girlfriend's father (secondary emotion). Not seeing that there is a bigger picture of feelings and tension he'll have to personally work through and that Ginger's father is a separate entity from it, he confronts his girlfriend and her father. All the accumulated pain over the years of feeling judged and excluded makes him particularly aggressive in his delivery. Instead of asking the father if he did something wrong and how to fix it, he rages and swears, calling him an asshole. When Ginger tells him he's being inappropriate he rages at her too. They are forced to leave the farm early since Ginger's father won't let Marcus stay at his farm for one more night, and they break up on the way home back to the city. Back at his place, Marcus is filled with sadness, hurt, and regret (secondary emotions), and his feelings of being judged and misunderstood are reinforced.

Now let's look at how Marcus responds if he recognizes his emotions and uses his ER skills to soothe him.

In evaluating his emotions, Marcus sees that a) he's simply feeling an accumulation of all the time he's been judged and misunderstood b) He might get angry and defensive as a result c) he needs to tell his girlfriend about it d) They might need to problem solve by removing themselves from the situation. They can always plan another trip to see the farm and Ginger's parents.

Recognizing his thinking pattern, Marcus decides to swiftly take care of his primary emotion. He grabs his phone and calls a friend who can distract him and make him feel understood rather than misunderstood. He plans to later tell Ginger about his feelings and ask if they could cut the trip short. Ginger might not want to leave her parents so soon, however, so he plans to just keep to himself, Ginger, and talk to Ginger's mom instead of dwelling on Ginger's dad's frosty attitude. He's a great catch he reminds himself. His drinking problem was behind him and loved and took care of Ginger.

He is embarrassed, however, about being the person who has to run away from a place. It makes him feel weak. Wasn't avoidance a wrong coping skill anyway? He then tells himself, it's okay to be sensitive, that this too shall pass, even the feelings of embarrassment, and that he'll deal with his sensitivity to feeling misunderstood later. He wasn't avoiding it, he told himself, he was simply putting it off to a time where it would be more appropriate to work through. He didn't want to end up yelling and making a scene at Ginger's family farm.

Feeling a bit more balanced, it comes time to talk to his girlfriend. Ginger is disappointed. She tells Marcus he's overthinking and that her father is just under the weather and not himself. He also is cautious of men in her life, period, because of the problematic exes in her past. "He'll warm up to you eventually. Don't take it personally." This soothes Marcus's emotions a bit but he still thinks they should leave. Ginger doesn't agree at first but because Marcus clearly explained his feelings stemming from the past, without blaming her or her father, she is understanding. Apologizing to her family, they leave before Marcus's emotions get the best of him.

By taking these steps Marcus successfully brings down his feelings of being misunderstood and judged to a tolerable level. He also avoided maladaptive behaviors such as exploding in rage and manipulating his girlfriend with the silent treatment.

What ER Skills Did Marcus Use?

The ER skills Marcus used in the case study could be identified in many different ways. Some of them are:

  • Describing Emotions and Observing Yourself Without Judgement - when he identified his primary emotion as years of feeling judged and misunderstood.

  • Check the facts - when he expressed his concerns to Ginger and she explained that her father's cold behavior had nothing to do with him personally.

  • Opposite Action - when he planned to disengage with the father rather than confront him.

  • Problem Solving - when he and Ginger decided to leave the farm.

  • Pleasant Events/Moments - when he called a friend.

  • Cope Ahead - when he decided he'll just talk to Ginger and her mom for the remainder of the trip if Ginger didn't want to leave.

  • Build Mastery - when he chose to build on his communication skills with Ginger by explaining himself to her and being vulnerable instead of freezing her out.

  • Positive Self-talk - when he reminded himself of all the ways he is a good boyfriend.

  • Balancing Thoughts and Feelings - when he reasoned with himself that he was doing the right thing by leaving and that he wasn't weak. He also told himself that it's okay to be sensitive and that his feelings of embarrassment wouldn't last forever. This took the edge off, balancing his feelings.

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