Why Starting in the Shallow End is Essential for All Mental Health Skills

Jan 17
7 min read

Just like learning to swim, developing mental health skills requires a gradual, gentle approach. Beginning in a low-stress, controlled environment allows you to build confidence, understand the nuances of each skill, and create a strong foundation. It's about easing into the process, giving yourself space to learn and grow, and preparing for deeper, more challenging situations with a sense of readiness and resilience. This way, when real stressful situations occur, you’ll be ready with a practiced set of skills to deploy on command.

Let’s look at a real-world example of how honing your mental health skills in low-stakes situations can help you be better prepared. We’ll look at a DBT community favorite — the TIP Skills. 

What Are TIP Skills and How Do They Work?

First, a quick refresher and definition for those new here: TIP Skills, standing for Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced Breathing, and Paired Muscle Relaxation, are a set of techniques in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) designed to rapidly reduce emotional arousal and feelings of being overwhelmed. They work by literally altering your body's chemistry, helping you navigate through intense emotions swiftly. There are four skills within TIP including:

  • Temperature: This involves using physical temperature changes, like putting your face in a bath of cold water, to calm your nervous system.
  • Intense Exercise: Engaging in quick, intense physical activities to help release pent-up energy and stress.
  • Paced Breathing: Slowing down your breathing to reduce your heart rate and induce calmness.
  • Paired Muscle Relaxation: Tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups to create a state of physical and mental relaxation.

When and How to Use TIP Skills

TIP Skills are normally used when you feel emotionally overwhelmed, panicky, or on the verge of engaging in unhelpful behaviors. They are your go-to strategies for immediate relief in high-stress moments, in which we cannot use our full cognitive capabilities

If you try the TIP skills in a high-stakes situation without having practiced first, you’ll likely fail to succeed. Even worse, you may come to the conclusion that they’re too hard to practically use. That would be a shame because these skills are proven to work! What’s happening here is that in the early stages, it takes a lot of thought to use these skills … but remember, “thinking” is exactly what we can’t do well when we’re under stress. So, the key to effectiveness with TIP skills is knowing them inside and out, so that using them is like a reflex or muscle memory. And the best way to have skills become second nature is to practice them in calmer waters.

Pro Tips for Practicing TIP Skills in Calm Situations

  • Start Small: Begin consistently practicing one skill at a time in a relaxed setting. Get comfortable with it before adding another skill to your practice routine.
  • Create a Routine: Incorporate TIP Skills into your daily routine. For example, practice paced breathing every morning or engage in intense exercise as a part of your workout.
  • Mindful Observation: Pay close attention to how your body and mind respond during practice. This awareness will help you fine-tune your approach for maximum effectiveness.
  • Explore Stress: Once comfortable, simulate mild stressors in a controlled environment and practice using TIP Skills. For instance, try paced breathing when you're slightly anxious about a meeting or task.
  • Record Yourself: Keep a log of your practice sessions and record yourself as you practice, noting what works well and where you face challenges. 
  • Seek Feedback: If possible, get feedback from a therapist or a trusted person who understands DBT skills. They can offer insights and suggestions for improvement.

Practice Leads to Mastery

The effectiveness of DBT's TIP Skills, or any mental health technique for that matter, hinges not just on repetition but on the quality of that repetition. Starting in the shallow end of the pool, taking deliberate, thoughtful steps in your practice, and gradually increasing the complexity and intensity, means that you're not just learning a skill; you're ingraining it into your very being.

Starting small ensures that when you're faced with high-stress or emotionally intense situations, your response becomes almost reflexive. The pathways in your brain become so well-trodden through correct and consistent practice that deploying these skills becomes second nature. You won't need to fumble or consciously recall; your mind and body will just know what to do.

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