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Douse The Emotional Flames

Shit happens. Sometimes it's little stuff (you break a nail) and sometimes it's bigger stuff (you break a finger). When bad stuff happens, it can cause intense emotions to flare, which can put us at risk for acting out in unhealthy behaviors.


In my practice I help clients learn and use a variety of tools we call distress tolerance skills to make it through these situations without making things worse by doing things that hurt themselves or their relationships. These tools can help in a variety of settings - you've just got to learn and start practicing them so they're readily available when the proverbial shit hits the fan.


The first step to navigating intense emotional reactions is understanding that intense emotions don't last forever. If you can avoid throwing emotional lighter fluid on them, they will usually pass or subside to manageable levels in under five minutes.


Here is a technique from my Dialectical Behavior Therapy toolbox that may help. We use the acronym I.M.P.R.O.V.E. to remember the steps, and I bet that if you can get even halfway down the list when emotions are flaring, you'll be better able to tolerate them until the intensity subsides.

  • IMAGERY: Visualize yourself handling the situation beautifully! See yourself encountering this challenging situation, then see the most functional version of yourself slowing down, shaking the tension out of your shoulders and jaw, assessing the situation, tools you might need, and possible solutions carefully, then addressing it elegantly. If you struggle to tap into a functional version of yourself for this imaginal experience, perhaps imagine how someone your respect, or who has the calm coping skills you admire would handle the situation.

  • MEANING: Look for the meaning and lessons in your present suffering. Life is a series of challenges, but with a good perspective, those challenges are simply wake-up calls or lessons. What if, in a moment of intense emotion, you were to shift into gratitude for the lessons you know are going to come as a result? Maybe you'll learn how resilient you are? Maybe you'll dodge a relationship bullet? Maybe a door closing means other doors will open?

  • PRAYER: When shit is really overwhelming, surrender. If you believe in God, hand it over in prayer. If you're more aligned to believe in a universe that has a plan for you, give it back to the universe to handle. Or, simply surrender it generally, admitting that ultimately some things are out of your control and that whatever happens will be ok, good or bad.

  • RELAXATION: When intense emotions strike, our flight/flight responses tend to kick in, making us tense up. If you can stop, take a deep breath, and check in with your body, just noticing (without freaking out) where tension or discomfort is settling, and then breathing 10% more release and relaxation into those spots.

  • ONE THING in the moment: A one-track mind helps emotions feel less overwhelming; stay in the moment by letting go of the past and future. How to you do this? There are lots of ways to stay in the moment and they're all part of a practice called mindfulness, but one of the easiest ways is to check in with your senses, one-by-one and notice: 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can touch/feel, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste.

  • VACATION: It may seem like a wild expectation to ask you to take a mini-vacation in the middle of an emotional freakout, but trust me...it works! Take a breath, close your eyes (if it's safe) and imagine yourself somewhere else, like taking a sunset stroll on the beach or sitting by a peaceful campfire with friends. Imagine all the sensory input you'd be receiving in that relaxing, calm, or safe place...and breathe it in for a moment....ahhhh!

  • ENCOURAGEMENT: Give yourself a pep talk by repeating phrases that are meaningful to you, such as “I got this!” If you've got affirmations you've been working with, those are great, too: "I am strong and resilient; I navigate stressful situations with ease and grace!"

So what do you think? What impact might these steps have if you use them next time you're faced with a bad situation and emotions get intense? Try practicing them and let me know how it works!

psychotherapy in SCOTTSDALE, AZ

I am currently accepting new clients from all over Arizona via telehealth!  

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