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4 Ways I Manage My Emotional Intensity

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I spent years calling my emotional intensity as “the storm inside me” because of the way my feelings come on quickly and consume me, much like a tornado can roll in with almost no notice and level a town. In those moments, my emotions would run everything, and I felt completely out of control.

After I discharged from my local psychiatric hospital’s intensive outpatient program, though, I started dialectical behavior therapy — and I soon discovered the power of distress tolerance skills.

If you aren’t familiar with distress tolerance skills, they essentially help you manage emotional distress without making your emotional intensity escalate. In many cases, these skills actually help lower your emotional intensity so you can manage your problems in a healthy way. Although these skills aren’t a permanent “cure” to your underlying symptoms or stressors, these skills can really help people who deal with emotional intensity on a daily basis.

While there are numerous distress tolerance skills you can use to navigate intense emotions, I personally use these four skills on a fairly regular basis:

1. TIPP Skill

TIPP isn’t just one skill — it’s actually an acronym for four different “tricks” you can use. Each of these tricks work through physiological responses within your body. In other words, you use quick changes in your body chemistry to cue changes in your emotions.

The T stands for “temperature,” and is based on the dive reflex. Although this reflex usually activates the parasympathetic nervous system when your body is submerged in cold water, you can mimic the effect by placing cold water or an ice pack on your head. I personally keep an ice pack in my freezer at all times so it’s ready to go when I need it.

The I stands for “intense exercise.” Through exercise that is intense enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat, you can essentially work off your intense feelings and once again cue your body’s parasympathetic nervous system to automatically calm your body after you stop exercising.

The two P’s stand for “paced breathing” and “progressive muscle relaxation.” These skills are great because either of these skills can be used virtually anywhere at any time without anyone even realizing what you’re doing.

Paced breathing simply involves deep, diaphragmatic breaths that follow some sort of paced rhythm, such as square breathing (my personal favorite). By breathing at a set pace, your heart rate slows down, which naturally calms your body.

Similarly, progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and relaxing muscles in your body, starting either with your forehead or your toes and working your way down or up your body. Because this doubles as a mindfulness exercise, I often use this skill when my emotional intensity prevents me from falling asleep.

2. Self-Soothe

Although I really love how quickly the TIPP skills lower my emotional intensity, they don’t always work in situations where I’m experiencing a lot of anticipatory anxiety or extreme fear of abandonment. So in those moments, I use some of my favorite self-soothing techniques.

The self-soothe skill engages one or more of your five senses in a way that comforts and nurtures you. For some people, this may look like sitting outside and enjoying the view. For others, this may involve a relaxing bubble bath. There are literally dozens of options for self-soothing, which means nearly everyone can find an activity that works.

Personally, I have a few favorites that I use on a fairly regular basis, like curling up on the couch in my favorite blanket, petting my cats or eating my favorite flavor of ice cream. Each of these things makes me feel comfortable, safe and calm.

3. Distract

Much like self-soothing lowers your emotional intensity through comfort, distraction can lower emotional discomfort by drawing your attention away from your feelings and thoughts. Different distractions work for different people, which means there are many types of distractions to choose from.

Personally, I find television shows and books to be some of the best distraction activities because they actively put my mind somewhere else. Calling or texting friends can also distract me, especially if we haven’t talked in a few days and they have something interesting to share. If other distractions don’t work, I will sometimes turn on music and clean something in my house to distract, and that also works.

Distraction works really well for many people, but it’s important to not overuse this skill or distract as a pure avoidance measure. Instead, you should use these skills only as a way to temporarily calm your emotional intensity enough so you can work through the issue or process your feelings effectively.

4. Half Smile

Unfortunately, there are times when skills like TIPP and self-soothing aren’t entirely possible. For example, if you suddenly feel distressed while participating in a workplace meeting or while shopping in the grocery store, it isn’t easy to put an ice pack on your head or curl up in a blanket. However, you can use another simple trick to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the emotional distress you feel by performing what’s called a “half smile.”

The half smile basically positions your muscles in a way so that your body “tricks” your brain’s emotional response to change. The connection between the body and the mind through this skill can help you regulate your emotions and feel better in the moment — even if it’s only temporary.

To half smile, move your lips towards a smiling position, but stop just as the corners of your mouth begin to feel tense. Most people will not realize what you are doing, since it looks like you are slightly smiling. You don’t need to stay in this position long, just a few minutes. In that time, though, you will probably notice a shift in your mood.

I used to think that I could never tame the storm inside of me, but these distress tolerance skills from DBT have dramatically helped me reclaim control over my emotional intensity. If you live with borderline personality disorder or another condition that causes intense emotional responses, I hope that these skills can help you too.

Getty image by fizkes

Originally published: April 21, 2021
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