The overall goal of emotional regulation is to reduce emotional suffering and it is the third Dialectical Behaviour Therapy module.

We are of unaware of what we are feeling, and we respond automatically to our emotions if we are not aware of them. Mindfulness comes into play again because we firstly need to notice what we are experiencing. After noticing our emotion for what it is, we do not judge our emotions. Emotions serves many functions, including it motivates us into action, and we also use emotions to communicate to ourselves and others. Because we then can think more clearly, we can decide when and how to react.

Here Marsha Linehan, the founder of DBT, talks about emotional regulation:

MARSHA LINEHAN – Strategies for Emotion Regulation

The first step to regulate emotions is to be able to describe the emotion. My patients will often say “I have no idea what I am feeling” or “I am just feeling bad”. Then it is important to note that we tend to think of our emotions as being either good or bad. Being sad or angry can tell us something important, and it is not bad as such to feel sad or angry. Mindfulness and distress tolerance come into play again- we will have to accept that we have this negative emotion.

The next step is to regulate the emotion. To do this, we need to look at what is our interpretation of the situation. Can we interpret it differently? We also look at the factors that caused us to become more vulnerable to reacting on the emotion.

In individual therapy we can do a chain analysis. This is where we look in detail at the all the factors that lead up to the moment the patient ‘lost control’.

Like the other DBT skills, there are many emotional regulation skills. Here is my top 7:

  • Learn to identify your emotions
  • Understand why it is hard to regulate emotions

Most of us do are not born with the skills to regulate our emotions. This is one of the wonderful ideas of DBT- certain people simply lack skills. They are not inherently bad, unmotivated, or manipulative.

  • Stop unwanted emotions from starting
  • Remember supressing emotions make things worse
  • Learn about emotional mind, reasonable and wise mind
  • Learn how to express emotions and body language
  • Change emotional responses- check the facts and opposite action

Skills like check the facts and opposite action have many subskills to master e.g., knowing when to use it.

For a start, let us acknowledge that it is ok not to be in control of our emotions. This is a skill that will take time and effort to learn, but the rewards are worth it.

Dr Melane Van Zyl

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