Updated: Jul 12, 2022
So, today I want to chat about handling situations that shake your foundation, like really get to you at the core of your being. Those things that happen, maybe inside you maybe outside of you, that make you feel like your world is absolutely crumbling all around you. Or maybe those times where it feels so powerful that you think you will cease to exist, not just the world around you.
If you are reading this, you probably have examples of that kind of event in your head already. If not, here are a couple of possible examples:
You have a relationship that is very important to you and then you have a huge (or it at least seems huge) fight and fear the relationship is over. Could be a really important friendship, romantic relationship, or a family connection. Someone you've trusted says something mean (something you experience as mean) and it shakes what you thought about that relationship or how you view yourself.
You may have much smaller things that feel like foundation shaking events. These could be things that happen outside of you (in relationships, employment, school issues) or they could be internal (thoughts about how bad something is, an unwanted emotion, a judgment toward yourself) and then your experience is intense. Maybe you start to feel some anxiety, maybe you cross over into full blown panic, maybe you go all the way to perceiving that you will die (yes, this happens, and it’s more common than you might think.)
The point of this is not to try to classify how big the thing is that happens, rather it is to assess your emotional reaction and begin to sense a little control over it. Because, in those moments, you likely feel either completely out of control or you feel like you are falling apart. Of course, your reaction may be other than this as well, just some examples.
Ok, so let’s say you are having a large reaction. All of us have a difficult time problem solving when we have big emotional reactions. At this point it does not matter whether the emotion actually fits the current situation or not. What really matters when things get really intense is to assess for safety (am I physically safe at this moment) and then work to bring the intensity down if you are safe. What we want to prevent in this situation is doing harm or causing damage that we will have to clean up later. All of us have examples of damage we have done when emotionally dysregulated, some of us just have a lot more than others.
Here’s one idea for what to do. Rate your level of distress on a scale of 0-10 or 0-100, whichever seems like the one that fits better for you. If your distress level is really high, say 8-10, then you’ll need to do an intense skill to bring the intensity down. If the level is less, then the skill can be less intense. See, once the reaction has happened, the chemicals have already been triggered by the brain and the fight or flight response is active. You will need to create some space for things to calm down in the brain and body. Otherwise, our emotional system just runs the show and we may or may not do things that make sense later.
DBT has a number of skills that can be helpful here. We could use Intense sensations (the ‘S’ from ACCEPTS) to snap the brain and body back to the moment and begin to bring down the intensity. That could be intense sour candy, loud music in earphones, strong smells, holding an ice cube, etc.) Temperature (put your face in ice water for 15-30 seconds) will trigger the ‘dive response’ and quickly bring down heart rate, breathing, etc. *do not do this if you have a heart condition without consulting your physician first. You could use paced breathing (inhale for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 7, for example.) And a number of other skills called the ‘crisis survival strategies.’
These skills will begin to bring down the intensity. They WILL NOT solve the problem.
Over the years, I’ve heard from a number of people how a skill, ‘didn’t work,’ and what they most often mean is that the skill did not solve their problem. The crisis survival strategies (a whole group of skills in DBT, some of which I mentioned in that paragraph a little bit ago) will not solve problems, they will potentially keep you from making more problems. They must be used in coordination with other skills to do things like experience emotions, manage relationships, solve problems with avoidance, etc.
So, the skills I’ve briefly written about here will help you to ‘not make things worse,’ and can allow access to other skills so that you can solve the problem in front of you or move toward accepting things you cannot change.
Hopefully, what I’ve written today will have you wanting more, because I’ve only given just a little bit of info that will help you not blow things up in your life. Check back here for more info coming soon. Or check into DBT and see how the full therapy might be able to help you create a ‘life worth living.’
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