“Just think positive!”
“Quit being overly emotional.”
These are phrases individuals struggling with depression, anxiety or difficulty regulating emotions hear repeatedly. If only it was as easy as “stop it!” In reality, learning to manage our emotions and the intensity of our emotions is a complex set of skills that must be learned – much like learning to ride a bike.
Like learning to ride a bike, you need to learn the basics before you can master your emotions.
Most of us learn to ride a bike with someone helping us, on level ground, when there are no cars around. Once we master the art of bike riding in this environment, we gradually take the skills we have learned and apply them to new and more challenging situations. The same is true of learning to manage our emotions.
Encountering intense circumstances like the loss of a significant relationship, having a child, or developing anxiety or depression can overwhelm the emotion management skills we have and make us more vulnerable to intense and difficult to manage emotions. Researcher and psychologist, Marsha Linehan, developed a series of steps we can take to reduce our vulnerability to these intense emotions. Dr. Linehan refers to these skills as the ‘ABCs’ of emotion regulation.
Skills to manage emotions develop over time and have to be exercised in order to stay strong and effective. Intense or unexpected emotions can feel overwhelming and difficult to manage, but utilizing the ABCs can help to curb the impact of even the most intense emotions.
A. Accumulate Positive Emotions
Create opportunities for positive emotions.
When things aren’t going well in our lives, we tend to avoid engaging in activities which might produce positive emotions. Accumulating Positive Emotions requires us to avoid avoiding and to do things we may not feel like doing or may not think we have time for. Choosing to engage in these activities creates the best opportunity to experience positive emotions.
Embrace each positive emotion.
When we experience positive emotions, we need to be aware of these emotions and participate fully in each experience.
Don’t give your positive feelings over to worry.
While experiencing positive emotions, we need to avoid worrying. When we are under increased stress, it becomes easy to allow worry thoughts—including worrying about when any positive emotion we might be feeling will end—to “steal” the positive experience we are having.
B. Build Mastery
When faced with negative emotions or difficult circumstances, our self confidence is quickly eroded unless we deliberately work to build activities into each day which create a sense of accomplishment.
Make your goals attainable.
Activities don’t need to be mammoth in size but, rather, attainable activities that you give yourself credit for doing. For example, if you are a new mother, rather than attempting to clean the entire house, maybe the goal for the day is clean one toilet by putting cleaner in it after one trip to the bathroom and then scrubbing it following your next trip to the bathroom. The important part is to do something difficult but not impossible.
Give yourself credit.
When you accomplish an activity you set out to do, be sure to give yourself credit.
C. Cope Ahead
Scan ahead for challenging situations.
If you know you are going to be facing a difficult situation, begin by looking at the facts of the situation and the emotions these facts are likely to create. As you think through the potential situation, be aware of what may make it difficult for you to effectively manage your emotions within the situation.
Make a coping plan.
After you have assessed the potential situation, it is time to develop a plan. Think through how you will cope with the situation and with emotions the situation may create for you. You will want to be specific and may even want to write out a plan. If you get stuck, this is a place to “call a friend” and seek outside input.
Imagine yourself succeeding.
Once you have constructed your plan, visualize yourself utilizing this plan successfully. Just like a golfer practices their swing while visualizing the ball going exactly where it should, walk through the situation and practice handling the circumstances skillfully and effectively.
Practice responding to feared situations.
As you visualize yourself handling the situation, rehearse coping effectively with the situations you are most afraid might happen
ABC is from DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition by Marsha M. Linehan. Copyright 2015 by Marsha M. Linehan
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and Clinic Manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.