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How to Manage Difficult Emotions with with Dialectical Behavior Therapy

The Brutal Reality of Extreme Emotions

Dialectical Behavior Therapy was originally developed for adults with difficulty managing extreme emotions. This means extreme sadness, extreme anger, extreme fear and so on. Some of these extreme emotions could manifest as considering suicide and self-harm.

I love providing this type of therapy because part of a therapist’s training includes learning a number of different behavioral options to work through extreme emotions because, guess what! Some of us are born with heightened emotional sensitivity and reactivity. In other words, we feel all emotions stronger and faster than others.

At the time that this article was written, we are amid a global pandemic. Many folks who have been stable and healthy may have experienced a major change to their emotional well-being from increased fear of yours, your family’s, and friends’ well-being, actually losing loved ones, not being able to make ends meet, increased responsibilities with kids being at home and the list goes on. The point being, we all may be experiencing extreme emotions and some of us could use some guiding ideas to manage the more intense emotions we experience.

2 Simple Ways to Manage Difficult Emotions: Acceptance and Change

There are two broad categories of options to select in managing difficult emotions: acceptance and change.


Acceptance is the releasing of all the should haves, could haves, and if only, and the embracing of just what is. Sports fans know this all too well because, “If that ref would have called that penalty, we would have won!!”

And students, “If I would have just answered this one question I was on the fence about right, I would have gotten a grade higher!” And drivers “If that car wouldn’t have cut me off, I wouldn’t have slammed on my breaks and spilled in my car!!”

The fact is, you might be right, your team could have won, you could have gotten a better grade, and had a spill free and swerve free drive. However, Acceptance invites us to drop the feelings of injustice, drop the feeling it’s not right or not fair, drop thinking about how we were so close to getting what we wanted, and move through the pain induced by not getting what was wanted.

If you find yourself caught in a loop of wishing something did not happen because it doesn’t feel fair or if you would have just done this, or they would have just done that, I invite you to ask yourself if these thoughts are perpetuating your pain or easing it.

And don’t get me wrong, acceptance doesn’t mean you like the outcome or approve of what happened. Acceptance just means that you acknowledge that it did happen, and the pain caused from what happened is here.

Let go of trapped emotions with these 4 Emotional Release techniques

Mindfulness, then, can be used as an acceptance practice because of its own nature. Broadly, mindfulness in practice involves observing anything observable to you in the present moment without attributing opinions or judgements about what is there.

You can experience the present moment by focusing on the external world experienced through your five senses. Try it! What does the space around you sound like? Observe your world through sound.

You can also observe internal experiences like your own thoughts or internal sensations like muscle tension, heart rate, and breath. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “take a mindful breath” that doesn’t just mean think about the fact that you are breathing, it means experience the breath in its fullest form.

This includes: the entrance into the body, the traveling of the breath to the belly, the peak where the inhale meets the exhale, and the release until the very last drop of exhale to the beginning of the cycle.

Now telling anyone “just practice acceptance” when you just lost your job and you can’t make rent, your loved one tested positive for coronavirus, or was diagnosed with a terminal disease, your kids are hungry, or you’re in THE THICK of your depression, that probably feels like a big old middle finger, more specifically, it’s invalidating.

It’s invalidating because the suggestions “just take a few breaths, it’ll be ok” do not match the severity and intensity of some things that you could be going through. And for many, it won’t be ok soon. It will be more struggle, more pain, more loss. And for many, painful emotions will continue to arise as long as there are systems that pile adversity on some for the benefit of others.

This is where community comes in. This is where stepping up to take care of one another’s needs, giving when we have a little extra, being aware of resources that can actually promote aid for the people that share your country, your city, your neighborhood, your street, your building.

2. Change

This leads me to the next category of options to choose to help manage difficult emotions. The category of change is perhaps more intuitive with some because it is taking deliberate action to respond to a painful emotion.

You can change what you are doing, what your mind is doing, and change where you physically are in order to change how you feel. The action you take could simply be mentally distracting, like turning on and tuning in to your feel-good show, or leaving the problems that can’t be fixed in a day for a walk for fresh air.

Perhaps you can retreat from a painful discussion that’s not going anywhere because everyone involved is too emotional to come to genuine compromise or solution. Maybe you actually can do something right now to move towards solving the problem that is causing the emotion.

How to Balance Acceptance and Change

I present broad categories of options in the hopes that the general idea inspires your own customization. Let the things that are special to you come forward when you are feeling so inspired. It can be helpful to have a running list of options to cycle through, because when it gets bad, it can be hard to think through what to do with ourselves.

All together, this means that managing emotions, in many cases, it is a recurring event. I mean how many emotions have you cycled through just today? And when it gets difficult to manage, you can cycle through a number of different tools intermixing acceptance strategies and change strategies.

For example: “Today is really rough. I’m going to take a walk and get my body moving. I’m feeling better now, and am back home. Now I’m starting to feel worse again, an email just set me off.

I’m going to go lay in my bed (change), and feel my rage bubble up (acceptance), notice the tears streaming on my face (acceptance/mindfulness), practice a regulating breathing exercise and breath in for four counts and out for six (change).

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1 comentario

Stacy Lynch
Stacy Lynch
23 ene 2021

Thank you ❤️🙏🏻

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