There’s nothing to worry about! Just relax! You’re overreacting! These are comments we hear from others, or that we tell ourselves in an attempt to calm down. As adults we are expected to control our feelings, but most of us were never taught how. What does controlling an emotion even mean – ignoring it, shoving it down, criticizing it until it magically disappears?
Imagine any emotion, like anxiety, as a small child crying for attention.
Getting angry at the child, yelling, or wishing they would be quiet does nothing to help soothe them. Instead, practicing understanding, compassion and patience allow the child to feel understood and safe. Emotions act in a similar fashion. For all the time you’ve spent wishing you did not feel upset, angry or anxious, has it ever actually helped? If people could wish away negative or overwhelming emotions, everyone would be walking around as a picture of perfect mental health!
If we know that we cannot wish our anxiety away, what can we do instead? Let’s look at the anxiety management skills available under Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT was specifically designed for those with overwhelming emotions, like anxiety. While DBT is comprised of four buckets of skills for managing life, we will focus on one that is particularly helpful for managing anxiety: Emotion Regulation (Self Regulation).
Emotion regulation includes three objectives: 1) Understanding and Accepting Emotions 2) Reducing Emotional Vulnerability and 3) Decreasing Emotional Suffering.
Understand and Accept Your Emotions
Growing awareness of your emotions is key! Ignoring or being unclear about your emotions creates two problems. The first issue is that vague feelings are difficult to manage. If you say, “I’m upset” or “I feel bad”, it will be harder to soothe yourself. However, “I’m lonely” or “I’m scared” specifies emotions that allow for specific solutions.
The second issue is that the longer we ignore a feeling, the scarier it becomes. We put our emotions in a closet and lock the door. Then what happens is that the unknown behind that door grows with time and the idea of it can be terrifying. Awareness shines a flashlight on that emotion and takes away the fear of the unknown!
Name It to Tame It provides guidance for growing awareness of our emotions. When you experience a reactive or overwhelming emotion, be as specific as possible in naming it. Try using the statement “I am having a feeling of _________ (anxiety, fear, frustration, terror, nervousness etc)”. If you have trouble identifying the feeling, simply use a list of feeling words. The more specific you can be, the better. If you’d like a reference to help you identify what you are feeling you can use a “feeling wheel.”
Saying, “I am having a feeling of anxiousness,” creates space between you and the emotion. This is a verbal reminder that you are NOT your anxiety; you are experiencing a feeling and feelings are temporary. Notice how saying, I am anxious,” labels your whole being as ‘anxious’. This statement does not acknowledge the feeling as just being a part of you or that it is temporary.
Reduce Emotional Vulnerability
There are also DBT skills that help prevent anxiety by reducing your vulnerability to it. Think of this set of skills as a gift to ‘future you’ so that ‘future you’ is less likely to experience panic or large waves of anxiety. You can remember these with the acronym ABC PLEASE.
A – Accumulate positive experiences. The more positive experiences you accumulate, the easier it is to bounce back from a negative experience. Meet yourself where you are at. If you have low energy – read a book, watch a comedy show, call a friend, write a letter, take a bath, start a craft. If you have higher energy – go for a walk, meet a friend for coffee, visit your favorite store, play with your pet, start a home improvement project. Do whatever it is that you enjoy, not what you think you ‘should’ enjoy or what others want you to do. Whatever positive experience you choose, be sure to engage fully by giving that experience all your attention.
B – Build Mastery. Grow your sense of self-confidence, talent and capabilities by learning and becoming proficient at hobbies or traits that you love. This skill also provides you with a go to distraction during times of anxiety or other unwanted emotions. Consider starting a blog, painting, gardening, learning a new recipe, yoga, or carpentry. For inspiration, think about what hobbies you were interested in as a child or go to a local craft store and walk around until something sparks your innate creativity!
C – Cope Ahead. If there are situations that trigger your anxiety, start planning for them ahead of time. Write out the situation in detail. Brainstorm ideas for protecting yourself, setting boundaries or positive affirmations that will help you get through a difficult situation. If you typically view stressful situations as hopeless, coping ahead will help empower you. Many people experience anxiety in social situations. When heading to a social event, you can create boundaries for how long you will stay, identify people you feel most comfortable speaking to ahead of time, and use the affirmation: “These are just my emotions.”
PLEASE – Please skills are a reminder to take care of your physical body. Your mental health doesn’t have much of a chance of being in peak performance if you are not taking care of your physical body.
PL – Take care of physical illness. You are putting your emotions at risk if you are ignoring an illness or medical condition.
E – Eating balanced. Lack of a nutritious and balanced diet can leave you feeling tired, lethargic and in an overall down mood. High sugar or caffeine intake can increase energy and symptoms of anxiety initially and then lead to a crash later on.
A – Avoid mood altering drugs. Street drugs and alcohol alter the chemicals in your brain and are likely to dysregulate your mood. They may also interfere with the effects of prescribed medications you are taking.
S – Balanced sleep. Lack of sleep or irregular sleep patterns results in a lower frustration tolerance, feelings of exhaustion, and higher anxiety. Adequate rest and energy improve our chances of dealing with stressful situations in a healthy way.
E – Exercise. Moderate exercise can improve your mood within just 5 minutes. Exercise is especially important for individuals with anxiety. Think about the similarity between the physical effects of exercise and the symptoms of anxiety – racing heart, rapid breath, sweating. When you exercise, you begin associating those ‘symptoms’ with a feeling of empowerment, wellbeing and pride.
Decrease Emotional Suffering
As we have already established, fighting or resisting anxiety does not bring relief. The DBT skill of Letting It Go, provides a different way to interact with an emotion and decrease the accompanied suffering. Instead of focusing on the thoughts that typically perpetuate and prolong your emotional suffering, focus on the sensations of your body. If you are starting to feel anxious, close your eyes and bring your attention to the information available through your body. Can you feel the pounding of your heart? Does your chest feel tight? Is there tension or tingling in your shoulders?
Once you have identified and labeled the sensations in your body, continue to hold your attention there. When thoughts distract you, acknowledge their presence and then bring your attention back to the sensations over and over again. Do this without judgement – your sensations are not good or bad, they are just sensations. When you first try this technique, you may notice an increase in symptoms and that is normal. Instead of trying to avoid your anxiety, you are bringing your full attention to its physical symptoms, and this may initially feel overwhelming. Stick with it; the sensations will begin to lessen and eventually pass. The more you practice this and focus on your body instead of the anxious thoughts, the quicker your suffering will pass.
If managing your anxiety has you feeling burnt out or hopeless, you can acknowledge that the coping behaviors you have been using are no longer meeting your needs. As your new DBT skills become habit, you will naturally begin to let go of old coping behaviors that no longer serve you – avoidance, substances, emotional eating, giving into hopelessness. Set an intention to develop a different relationship with your anxiety and allow these DBT skills to be your guide.