Defining Emotion Regulation: A DBT Skill

If you feel out of control sometimes, try this opposite action for emotion regulation tip from The Center for Growth in Philadelphia. Things may happen in our lives that create emotions such as anger, fear, sadness or even joy. Sometimes, though, these emotions can feel larger than life or so big that it’s hard to do or think of anything else, the only thing we want to do then is behave inline with how that very intense emotion feels. The trouble with this, though, is that when our emotions hit those extreme levels, our reactions don’t always support our best intentions and may end up making things worse. Some examples are below identifying the potential progression of extreme emotions, reactions and outcomes.


Extreme Emotion

Initial Gut Reaction

Outcome

Anger

Scream/yell, hit, breaking things

The fight gets worse, may say things you don’t mean, hurt others

Sadness

Isolation, maladaptive coping skills, intensifying the sad

Extended length and intensity of sadness

Joy

Over-celebrate, overspend

May have over-extended yourself and abilities while feeling good



As we can see, the outcomes of the initial gut reaction that comes from an extreme emotion almost never results in productive activities or resolutions. And this is not to say that your feelings are invalid, because they are! Gut reactions can be honest and useful cues from your body. However, sometimes the impulsive reactions to gut feelings are destructive and exacerbate things. These impulsive or gut reactions may be linked to a fight or flight response, which takes away our ability to engage cognitively in a situation. So, if you know from past experience that a behavior you routinely engage in (such as the ones in the table above) can be self-destructive, opposite action for emotion regulation is the key! In this tip, you will learn a skill that may help bring emotions down from that extreme level so that you can address them in a healthy, safe, and productive manner.


Practice: Opposite Action for Emotion Regulation - A DBT Tip

Now, for the tip. When you feel yourself on the verge of an extreme emotion or maybe already reacting with a behavior, recognize the situation and feelings or behavior, and then think of the behavior that would be the exact opposite from what your gut tells you to do. Once identified, do that “opposite action for emotion regulation” instead!

On hearing the tip, it seems simple. In practice, it can be really hard to do the opposite of what your gut reaction is, especially after listening to that gut reaction so far in life. So let’s break it down step by step.

  1. Recognize you are having a big emotion
    1. Can you feel it in your body through tightness in your chest? Are your thoughts spinning? These may be some good indicators or emotions, but it’s important to figure out what your specific emotion indicators are!

  2. Identify what behavior is coming to a head as a result of that big emotion
    1. Is this behavior healthy, safe, or productive? Many times, our go-to for big emotions are things like yelling, fighting, isolating which are not productive.

  3. Think of the opposite of the go-to behavior, then engage in that behavior instead
    1. Want to yell? Whisper. Want to isolate? Call a friend or go out in public. This is the opposite action for emotion regulation.



How DBT Tip Opposite Action for Emotion Regulation Works:

As mentioned in the introduction, engaging in the opposite action for emotion regulation from the gut reaction can reroute our brains away from emotionally reacting and towards responding in a way that engages both cognitive and emotional sides. This means we can respond in ways that help push us towards resolution instead of exacerbating a situation. To see how the opposite action for emotion regulation tip may change the course of an interaction in your life, complete the “potential outcomes” section in the table below!


Extreme Emotion

Initial Gut Reaction

Possible Opposite Action

Potential Outcome

Anger

Scream/Yell

Leave the conversation, or whisper

Sadness

Isolate

Call a friend, or go out somewhere (coffee, tea, milkshake maybe)

Joy

Overspend

Call 3 friends and tell them what happened if they have time to talk

Using DBT Opposite Action for Emotion Regulation in Real Life

So, while this tip sounds great in theory it can be really hard to catch your gut reaction before it happens when you first start practicing. That’s okay and totally normal! You’re working on breaking a pattern that has been with you for most of your life. So, here are some things to remember when getting started with use of the opposite action strategy.

  • No one is perfect! This is a new skill or exercise you are engaging in, so using it may seem really hard or we may stumble at first. But as with all skills, practice makes all the difference. First we practice noticing our emotions and behaviors, then once we notice them we can practice implementing change!

  • If you notice a behavior or emotion but are too overwhelmed in the moment to do the opposite action, that's okay! You can buy yourself some time by leaving the situation, asking to take a break in the discussion, or using another skill like a breathing or grounding exercise until you feel a bit more calm.

  • Once you’ve calmed down enough, practice using the chart! What would the opposite action have been? Can you do it now?


If it sounds like this opposite action tip for emotion regulation provided by the clinicians at The Center for Growth in Philadelphia may be helpful for you, give it a shot! If you are looking for more personalized help to address emotion regulation and coping you can self schedule / book an appointment with one of our skilled therapists either online or inperson Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, New Mexico, Florida and Georgia by calling (215) 922-5683 x 100