DBT Skills – Emotional Regulation

This post is part of a series where I discuss Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Life Skills. 

What are emotions?

Emotions are mental states, experienced as physical sensations in response to our perceptions.  These perceptions are byproducts of the brain’s ongoing mental efforts to interpret sensory information. It is through this ongoing effort that a mind-body connection is created.   It then makes sense that “emotions are signals within our body that tell [us] what’s happening (McKay, et al, 2007, p. 130).”  In this respect emotions can be considered as byproducts of an individual’s interaction with the environment.  Appraisal theories, common in the social sciences, focus on how people understand and interpret their environment when examining the nature of feelings (Ellsworth, 1994).  In contrast, universal theories reflect a biological perspective, which focuses on emotions as hardwired byproducts of primitive brain function (Ellsworth, 1994).

How are emotions generated?

imageSince emotions are byproducts of our interactions with the environment, it is important to understand how these factors interact to generate our emotional experiences.   Since emotions are byproducts of our interactions with the world around us, several solutions are available to help us regulate our emotions. Emotional regulation is a vital coping skill that allows us to influence what we feel at a particular moment & how we express this feelings.  According to Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) four key factors play a role in the generation of emotions.

The Situation

imageAs the saying goes “life happens when you’re doing other things.”  This statement reminds us of life’s inherent unpredictability.  All well-laid plans must therefore do amenable to change since life inevitably throws us the occasional monkey wrench or two.  Dealing with these curveballs is disconcerting to say the least.   The generation of emotional reactions starts when we encounter a situation that doesn’t go as we may have predicted.  How can you describe the movie reel experience you’re reacting to right now?  What happened?  Who was there?  List the specific sequence of events.

Our Attention

imageWhile life can be unpredictable & uncertain, we aren’t helpless victims.  The manner in which we choose to take in life experiences profoundly influence the impact of life events.   There’s definitely more than a grain of truth to the idea that “its all in how you choose to take it”.   Oftentimes we’re so focused on the event itself, that we fail to consider how we’re choosing to take it in.  For example, my endless fretful worry about finding a new internship, has been highly anxiety-producing.   The problem often isn’t the situation itself, but how I’ve chosen to take it.

Our Appraisal


As new and unexpected life situations present themselves, we immediately set about determining how we should respond to it.  Before we are able to react effectively to a situation, we must interpret it. What sort of emotional reaction is appropriate given what we know about the situation?   I discuss this subject in more detail in a post titled “Stolen Watermelons Taste Better,” where I discuss the subject of affective forecasting.

Our Reaction

When we act upon our appraisal to a situation, our reactions are guided by our perceptions and beliefs.  In this  respect, that our beliefs are able to influence our life experiences, and act as self-fulfilling prophecies. It is in this respect that we often “grow into” what we believe we are, and acquire what we believe is possible.

What is Emotional Regulation?


It is by understanding how emotions are generated that we can begin regulating them.  In my old DBT Skills group, emotional regulation was defined as “the process by which we influence the emotions we have: when we have them, how we experience them, and our manner of expressing them.”  We can regulate emotions by selecting and modifying the situations we find ourselves in.  We can modify our emotional states by re-examine how we attend to and appraise these situations.  Finally, we can modify our emotional by modifying our reactions to situations….

Situational Selection

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are not of our own choosing.  However, it is possible to be mindful of what situations we gravitate toward and what situations we avoid.  Examining this requires us to look closely at the expectations guiding our situational selection process.  What belief systems are these expectations based on?  What personal insecurities & past experiences guide our decisions to avoid certain situations and avoid others?

Situational Modification

Modifying the situations we find ourselves is also a useful emotional regulation tool.  What options are available to us to change the situation?  Stepping back to examine our options and carefully considering them is also useful.  Do you need to step back from a difficult situation?  Or does addressing this difficult situation require you to make your options known?

Attentional Deployment

I have a bad habit of ruminating endlessly over aspects of a situation that have elicit strong emotions within me. When I do this, my desire is to control those aspects of a situation that elicit strong emotions.  I become hell bent to “fix the situation” or produce a remedy for the stress/anxiety/etc.  Oftentimes, this hurts more than it helps.   Immersing myself into what needs to be done in the moment helps, distract my mind from those aspects of a situation that cause stress.

Cognitive Change

Examining your appraisal of a situation is useful as a means of altering its impact on you.  What is the significance of the situation?  Stepping back and examining how you construe life events, can often help us realize it isn’t what we see but “how we see it” that causes problems.

Response Modulation

Expressive suppression is useful in decreasing our chances of reacting harshly to situations in a manner that we might regret latter.  Managing our overall physiological responses to situations is also useful through mindfulness and relaxation techniques.  Finally, discussing the situation with someone you trust in order to attain another perspective of matters , does help.

Click here for a worksheet to understand & describe your emotions

3 Emotional Regulation Exercises


In my own DBT Skills Group – many years ago – I was taught three emotional regulation exercises.  The first skill involves simply describing and observing emotions.  The second involves improving our overall level of self-care in order to reduce our vulnerability to emotions.  Finally, increasing positive emotional experiences can also help improve our overall mental health.  I review these three below.

Describing & Observing Emotions

imageThere’s a big difference between thinking with your emotions and thinking through them.  When you thinking with your emotions, they exist as an all-powerful dictator within your brain.  Everything you encounter in life, becomes a definitive subject to your emotional state.  As you feel it, so it shall become for you in your lived experience.  What follows is an example that applies key steps in observing our emotions:

Name the Emotion – I am very anxious.
 Describe the Event – The Internship Interview.
What are your Thoughts & Assumptions – I’ve had four interviews so far and none have gone very well.  I’m told “we’re considering other options”, etc.  I worry if anyone will ever see what I have to offer.  Will I be able to find an internship opportunity?  How long will this take?
What are your Bodily Sensations –  Sweat drips down my armpits & my hands shake uncontrollably as my hard starts pounding outside my chest.
What is your body language & facial expression – With a stupid blank smile plastered across my face and cross my arms, in an attempt to hide my shaking hands.
What do you feel like doing & saying?  Part of me wants to run from the room screaming.  Within me is a deep well of frustration & anxiety.  I want to just stand up to this person and say “give me the dang job damnit”…
What do you actually do?  I tell myself to calm down.  I focus on the present moment & set aside these irrational concerns.  Instead I immerse myself in the conversation.  I listen about the internship opportunity available & his career experience.
Aftereffects of the Event?  I get the job.  It goes well.  I’m beyond elated.

Reduce Vulnerability

The second emotional regulation exercise is actually better characterized as an overall lifestyle change. Improving our level of self care is critical in reducing our vulnerability to emotions.  In class, we learned the acronym “PLEASE MASTER” to remember the following key tips for improving our overall well-being

*P*L*E*A*S*E* *M*A*S*T*E*R*
treat PhysicaL illness
balanced Eating
Avoid mood-altering drugs
plenty of Sleep
get Exercise
build MASTERY by doing one thing at a time to feel in control.

Increasing Positive Experiences

What activities can you include in your daily routine that improve your overall emotional state? I love blogging, hanging out with my family, and anything that allows me to utilize my creativity.  Additionally, I don’t live to work, I work to live.  As a working mother who is completing a graduate degree, scheduling regular “playtime” for mommy is essential.  All work and no play is a shitty way to live.

Click here for a worksheet to help you observe & describe you emotions.
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Ellsworth P.C. (1994). Sense, culture and sensibility. In S.E. Kitayama, & H.R.E. Markus, (1994). Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (p.p. 23-50). American Psychological Association.
Mckay, M., Wood, J., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.

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