Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy How Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Helps to Instantly Calm Strong Emotions

How Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Helps to Instantly Calm Strong Emotions

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Though everyone feels intense negative emotions, it is very common for teenagers to feel overwhelmed or stressed on a regular basis. UCLA researchers have reported that incoming freshman rates of feeling overwhelmed have increased from 18% in 1985 to 29% in 2010 and 41% in 2016. A recent study reported an increase in depression from 2005 to 2015 from 8.7% to 12.7% for teens 12- to 17-year-olds.

When your teen is overwhelmed it may be very hard for them to access and use their everyday coping skills and reminding them may lead to them feeling more frustrated. The reason being when we are in a state of extreme emotional arousal our brains aren’t functioning properly and we can’t process or access information. It is as if your teen is so overwhelmed by emotions their brain is on pause.

In order for your teen to get past their brain being on pause they need to ‘reset’ it. According to Dr Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) there are some simple skills you can use to kick your parasympathetic nervous system into gear which helps to relax us. This skill is referred to by the acronym TIP.

  • Temperature. If your teen changes their temperature it can help them refocus and reset. It helps them feel more grounded. Changing their temperature will instantly slow their nervous system down and help them to relax. They can try running cold water on their forehead or forearms, or back of their necks. Maybe chewing on some ice.
  • Intense exercise. Always check with your physician before doing any new physical activities to ensure you avoid any injuries. Short, quick and intense bursts of exercise can jolt your teen’s system and help to ground your teen. Quick increases in heart rate help mind-body connection and your teen is better able to calm down. Try jumping jacks, burpees, a quick jog, etc.
  • Paced breathing. Deep breathing is always a wonderful coping skill. Paced breathing is the opposite of the slow deep breaths you may be used to. In yoga we refer to it as ‘breath of fire’ or ‘cleaning breath’. You take short breaths in and strong forceful breaths out at a quick pace. Use this for about 15–30 seconds and no longer as it may leave you feeling lightheaded.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. The concept is to focus on one muscle group at a time tensing and releasing each group and notice the difference. You can repeat each muscle group four to six times. As you scan your body, tensing and releasing each muscle group the muscles loosen and relax. This skill can be very relaxing and help connect mind and body. If your teen is struggling to fall asleep this can be a great tool to use before bedtime to help them relax and fall asleep.

These skills will not necessarily stop your teen from feeling distress or discomfort. They can however learn to get through the crisis and whatever made them feel overwhelmed to begin with. Once the intensity has passed they will better be able to access their other DBT skills and begin to problem-solve the situation.


Image credit: Freepik

Lianna Tsangarides is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has been working with youth and families since 2007.


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