Navigating Emotional Spirals: Understanding and Managing Emotions in DBT

May 10, 2024
# min read

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) provides clear methods for understanding and managing our emotions. A key concept in DBT is the idea that "emotions love themselves" or "emotions feed on themselves." This means that our primary emotions can lead to secondary emotions, which might cause either a downward or an upward emotional spiral. Let's look at this model, understand how these spirals happen, and learn ways to create positive emotional patterns while stopping negative ones.

The DBT Model of Emotions

DBT shows that emotions are natural responses to things that happen around us, and they have specific roles, like motivating us, communicating needs or feelings, and influencing others. But emotions can also cause more emotions. For example, initial anger over a perceived wrong might lead to shame about how you reacted. This shame could then increase your anger or distress, starting a complex chain of emotions.

This model highlights the need to recognize and name these emotions clearly. Knowing our emotional triggers and reactions is key to managing them effectively. This understanding can help stop the growth of negative emotional patterns and support more helpful responses.

Benefits of a Positive Emotional Sequence

An upward emotional spiral can improve our mental health and overall happiness. For instance, feeling joy can make you more involved in activities that bring about more positive emotions like gratitude or contentedness. This positive feedback loop can make you more resilient, increase your life satisfaction, and lead to better relationships.

To build these positive spirals, DBT suggests practices like:

  • Mindfulness: Staying fully present in the moment can help you enjoy positive experiences and emotions more, starting a positive feedback loop.
  • Gratitude: Practicing gratitude regularly can help shift your focus from negative to positive aspects of life, strengthening feelings of happiness.
  • Positive Interactions: Positive interactions with others can increase feelings of love and connection, leading to more positive emotions.
  • Stopping a Negative Sequence or Downward Spiral

Negative emotions can also lead to more negative emotions, creating a downward spiral. For example, anxiety about an upcoming event might cause sleeplessness, which could make you more irritable and stressed, making the original anxiety worse.

DBT offers several strategies to stop these negative spirals:

  • Emotion Regulation Skills: It's crucial to learn how to regulate emotions. This includes methods to reduce unwanted emotions by changing how you react to triggers.
  • Distress Tolerance Skills: These skills are vital when emotions become too strong and need to be endured. Techniques like distraction, self-soothing, and improving the moment can help you handle intense emotions without making them worse.
  • Opposite Action: This approach means doing the opposite of what your current negative emotion wants you to do. For example, if you feel sad and want to isolate, the opposite action would be to go out and meet people.

Let’s look a couple of other ways DBT can help us manage our emotions:

Developing Self-Compassion

Self-compassion in DBT involves treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer a good friend. When you notice that you are experiencing negative emotions, instead of being harsh or critical towards yourself, you respond with gentleness and care. For instance, if you are feeling overwhelmed by guilt or self-criticism, practicing self-compassion can help you acknowledge your feelings without being overtaken by them. You might remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s okay to be imperfect. This shift in perspective can reduce the intensity of negative emotions and promote a more forgiving and encouraging attitude towards yourself.

Building Mastery and Coping Ahead

DBT also emphasizes the importance of building mastery and coping ahead to prevent emotional spirals before they start. Building mastery means engaging in activities that make you feel competent and in control. When you regularly do things that you are good at, you build confidence and reduce feelings of helplessness. This could be as simple as cooking a meal, solving a puzzle, or completing a workout. Each small achievement boosts your mood and contributes to a more positive emotional state.

Coping ahead involves planning how to deal with challenging situations before they occur. You think about potential emotional triggers and develop a plan for how to respond in a way that maintains your emotional equilibrium. For example, if you know that meeting a particular person makes you anxious, you might plan to practice deep breathing beforehand or arrange to have a supportive friend call you afterward. 

Understanding and using these DBT strategies can help you better manage your emotions and build a more balanced and satisfying life.

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