How to Calm Your Inner Storm

December 31, 2021

When your emotions become too painful and overwhelming, regain control using skills from dialectical behaviour therapy.

Your boss is demanding that you work on a document even though your workday is over. Suddenly, you find yourself bursting into tears or struggling to catch your breath. Or the kids are fighting again, and you lose it, yelling at them to stop, and immediately you’re beating yourself up for losing your temper. You don’t know what to do with these feelings, so you end up just stuffing them away, or burying them with your unhealthy distraction of choice.

If this sounds familiar, don’t worry, you’re not alone. At times, we all have strong emotional reactions that we struggle with – that’s just part of being human. But, for some people, the inability to manage emotions in healthy, effective ways can be a pervasive problem, and this can come with a lot of negative consequences.

In the right amounts, emotions serve a useful purpose. They provide us with information, influence our decisions, and compel us to act. For example, if you experience fear when you’re walking alone at night and you hear footsteps nearby, your brain automatically mobilises you to get ready to run in case there’s danger. Or if you’re being treated in an unfair way, anger will motivate you to make changes so that people treat you more fairly.

Nonetheless, emotions can be painful and distressing. When they arise, we try to manage and cope with them. This process is known as emotion regulation, and can include redirecting our attention away from whatever is causing us distress; changing our thoughts about the situation; or changing how we’re behaving in the situation. Emotion regulation doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make our emotions disappear altogether, but it helps us calm them, so they’re more manageable.

Trouble arises when emotions become overwhelming and we can’t regulate them in healthy, effective ways. This is known as emotion dysregulation. Everyone gets dysregulated at times, particularly when we’re dealing with exceptional circumstances such as a pandemic, a natural disaster, or the death of a loved one.

But when emotion dysregulation occurs on a regular basis, even in the face of minor stress, it can cause chaos. It makes it difficult for a person to live their life, and it’s a factor in many mental health problems including mood and anxiety disorders. Dysregulation also contributes to suicidality and self-harming, and leads to self-destructive behaviours such as substance abuse, disordered eating, or other means of avoiding the painful emotions and thoughts.

Most people learn how to regulate their emotions when they’re growing up.

But for some, the strategies they adopt are unhealthy or unhelpful. One theory about why this happens is the biosocial theory, from a treatment called dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). According to this theory, some people are born with a higher level of emotional sensitivity: they have stronger emotional reactions to things, take longer to get over those intense feelings, and generally deal with a higher level of emotional pain (eg, they experience more anger, sadness, shame or anxiety).

While this emotional sensitivity (the ‘bio’ part of the theory) isn’t uncommon and isn’t a problem in and of itself, when we combine this with a problematic environment (ie, the ‘social’ part), things can become difficult.

Specifically, some children grow up in an environment in which they experience pervasive invalidation. They regularly receive the message that there’s something wrong with them, and are punished for the emotions, thoughts and physical sensations they experience – or have these experiences ignored. When a highly emotionally sensitive child is brought up in an environment where they’re regularly being invalidated, we have the perfect storm that creates emotion dysregulation.

DBT was originally created by the American psychologist Marsha Linehan to treat borderline personality disorder – people with this diagnosis experience extreme, chronic emotion dysregulation and often engage in suicidal and self-harming behaviours. As such, DBT focuses on teaching people the skills they need to manage their emotions more effectively. Today, many therapists use a DBT-informed treatment approach for many other mental health problems, including depression and anxiety disorders. As a psychotherapist, I teach all of my clients DBT skills, regardless of the problems they’re dealing with.

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