Hacking Your Executive Function: Emotion Regulation Skills from DBT


Hello and welcome to day two of Emotion Regulation week, the week where we talk about finding healthy ways to deal with feelings (I swear it’s more fun than it sounds like). In this section I’m going to focus on skills that I learned in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, because DBT has a whole section on emotion regulation that breaks things down into clear and easy to understand skills, and also because it was the first time that I heard the term emotion regulation or got any education in this realm.

The first skill we’re going to talk about might seem silly when we’re talking about keeping our emotions managed, but sometimes we forget about it: do things that feel good. In DBT speak we call this “accumulate positive experiences” but basically it just means schedule time in your life to do things that you enjoy doing and that make you feel good.

Seems easy right? Sometimes this requires actually doing some work. You may have to try a few different things to see what actually leaves you feeling more positive than when you started. Gather some data! Write down how you feel before you do something “fun” and how you feel after to see if it actually improved your mood. Do some work to see which things affect which moods (for example I tend to find that aerials makes me feel much better when I’m angry or overwhelmed, but is much harder when I’m at a low/sad/down mood). For some people this is the typical “self care” type things like taking a bath, deep breathing, or manicures, but for others it’s playing Dungeons and Dragons or going for a run or volunteering.

The other element that’s important is prioritizing fun and enjoyable things. It’s easy to let fun fall by the wayside when we get busy, but having regular activities that feel good makes us more capable of facing work and hard situations. Maybe you want to have a weekly activity that you never miss, or maybe you track your socializing or relaxation time in an app or journal.

One note here: this is all about balance! Positive experiences aren’t just sitting around on your computer all day every day, because eventually that stops feeling great. I would also suggest that for things that allow you to zone out or not think you spend some time determining if you actually feel better afterwards. There are certain things I used to do to “relax” (candy crush) that over time I realized weren’t actually that enjoyable, they were just easy and mindless. Pay attention to whether you actually like what you’re doing.

Skill two is called build mastery, but basically it’s doing things that make you feel competent and accomplished. This can be something very very small: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by negative feelings, getting up and taking a shower can give you a first shot of confidence that helps you move on to something bigger. I like to think of it in larger terms too though.

For me, building mastery is often about regularly trying new things so that I can see improvement. That ability to see improvement is incredibly important to me because it makes me feel competent and able. It’s surprising how long that feeling of success lasts when you notice that you’ve improved at something. It carries through into many other areas of your life and helps you to feel in control.

So from little things that allow you to feel like your life is in control (cleaning the bathroom) to big things that allow you to feel in control of your own growth (seeing progress in your career), incorporating elements into your life that give you a sense of control and improvement will help to keep your mood up.

You may have noticed that our first two skills have to do with ongoing emotional regulation. They are things you can incorporate throughout your life that should help to keep your mood from dipping too low. The next two skills are going to be about reacting to difficult experiences.

So skill number three is called cope ahead. Sometimes we can anticipate that a particular situation or experience will be difficult. If you’re planning to break up with someone, or if you’ve got a performance review coming up, you can anticipate that you might have some big and challenging emotions around the situation. Cope ahead is essentially identifying situations that are likely to be challenging and then thinking of what you can do to make it better.

What might that look like?

The first step is being somewhat mindful about potentially nasty situations. A lot of the time we can identify them by noticing if we’re feeling anxious, afraid, or angry about an upcoming situation. Other times it’s super obvious! A big test or a presentation at work is likely to cause a lot of stress. If you are thinking a lot about something or sinking a ton of time into it, practicing a little bit of cope ahead can be great!

Once you’ve figured out what the difficult situation might be, how do you plan for it? You might start by imagining how you want the situation to go, practicing scripts, or imagining where your boundaries are. You can also set up the time before and after the situation to focus on self care. You might make sure you get good sleep and a good meal ahead of time, or spend some time with a person that makes you feel good. I also highly recommend having your emotional emergency kit ready to go afterwards, whatever that might look like for you: for me I like to have my footie pajamas, some chocolate, a good movie, and someone that I can vent to.

One example of this is that I always schedule aerials class for after therapy because I know that I’ll have a lot of emotions and a good workout helps me to feel more relaxed again.

In some cases you may also be able to include some self care in the moment. I like to have a fidget with me during stressful situations, which is a small way to plan for a stressful situation.

Speaking of in the moment, let’s head on to our fourth skill for this post: improve the moment!

You might be surprised that improve is actually an acronym in this case. The skill is exactly what it sounds like: ways that you can try to make yourself feel better when a moment is unpleasant. The acronym is all the different options.

One thing in the moment

You can check out all these different definitions here, but what I would focus on for this is finding what works for you. Does it make you feel better to turn to a higher power and pray? Does it make you feel better to take a half hour out of your day and completely zone out without worrying? I like to keep a list of things that help me feel better or at least keep my mood from getting worse when I’m having a bad day. That list has lived in multiple places over time: on my wall in my room, in my journal that I keep with me all the time, on my computer.

You can do a combo pack of cope ahead and improve the moment by writing up that list and putting it in an easily accessible place so that you’ve got the tools you need if something crops up unexpectedly.

This is another area where experimentation can be good. Every time you have a bad day, try something new and see if your mood stays the same, gets worse, or gets better. Write down the ones that works and go from there!

There are tons of great lists of self care options out there that can help give you ideas of what might improve your mood. Check them out and see what you like the best, then practice your emotion regulation skills.


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