There are a hundred different words to describe emotional distress; all of which accurately personify the energy that we experience when our feelings become intense. Take a second to think about the last time you would say that you were at a ten of a ten. It could’ve been strong sadness following a loss, anxiety after losing a job, or anger during an argument. Now, take some time to remember what you noticed within your body. Was it tightening in the jaw, shallow breathing, maybe even a heaviness that felt like a wet blanket over your shoulders?
The Benefits of the Mind-Body Connection
The wonderful thing about the mind-body connection is that we get chances to notice when our emotions are raising by simply taking time to observe. This concept is a basis for all mindfulness practices and other therapeutic modalities; including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT.
DBT was created by Dr. Marsha Linehan in early 90’s as a form of treatment for people who struggled with chronic suicidality, or those who had a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. However, over the past two decades, research has shown that DBT can be effective for essentially any issue that stems from an inability to regulate emotions.
Broken down into four different modules, DBT is a skills-based approach that focuses on mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. Clients get the opportunity to learn how to add in a pause between an emotional stressor and a response by using skills specifically created for this purpose. Let’s look at an example to see how the process works.
The DBT Process
Say, for instance, you find out that your spouse of multiple years is cheating. Your body gets hot, fists clinches, jaw tightens, heart starts to race. Sadness and anxiety go to rage in 2.5 seconds. Maybe your first response would be to scream or to lash out and become aggressive. Totally valid, but not always the most effective thing in the moment. Here is where skills come into play.
Under the distress tolerance module, we learn how to S.T.O.P. By being mindful of warning signs and emotional cues, clients are able to notice that they are on a quick road to an emotional meltdown. There is a physical (S)top. No movement, no words, just stillness. We all know how easy it is for our feelings to take the wheel. (T)ake a step back. This can be both mentally and physically. There are times when distress can signal that it is time to attack, even if there is no physical danger. (O)bserve. Mindfulness is ever-present in DBT. This allows for the opportunity to take note of how the emotion impacts thought processes and urges to react. Once there is awareness, (P)roceed mindfully, acting with attention to goals and values.
Applying DBT Skills
In action, this would look something like the following: You learn that your spouse is cheating and your body wants to respond with aggression. Physically stop, take a literal step back, observe where the heightened emotion can be felt in your body and the action urge, and proceed with awareness.
Although the skills seem simple, it is no secret how difficult it can be to manage distressing emotions in the moment. Which is why it is so important to practice. The next time you notice sadness telling you to isolate, or anxiety willing you to run and hide, give the STOP skill a chance!
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Written By: Brianna Pharr
About the author
Brianna Pharr is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Reiki practitioner, based in North Carolina. Presently, she works in a community setting, specializing in DBT. She has a passion for helping clients navigate the "Millennial Experience," and uses a holistic approach to promote wellness. If she is not traveling, you can find her playing her guitar or watching a documentary.