When our emotions become overwhelming, it can be hard to respond to them. If we feel depressed, we might feel stuck or trapped, and all we want to do is sit on our couch and mindlessly scroll through Instagram. Other times, we can feel so angry that we want to punch a hole in the wall.
But, instead of getting stuck on our couch, we call a friend and go for a walk. Instead of punching a hole in the wall, we pause and take some deep breaths. This is the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skill, Opposite Action to Emotion.
Opposite Action to Emotion is a skill that helps us actively and behaviorally do the opposite of what we are feeling. Our emotions can often attempt to dictate our behaviors. And, our behaviors can directly impact our moods. Thus, if we do the opposite of what we are feeling, we will change our mood, and start to feel better.
How Does it Work?
Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all connected. For example, if I think, “I’m a loser, I have no friends, and everyone hates me,” I will start to feel sad or depressed. As a result of feeling sad or depressed, I might pull away from those who love me. I might binge eat, or misuse substances. But, if we were to change my thought to, “Right now, I feel lonely,” we might reach out to people we trust.
How to Practice Opposite Action to Emotion
First, identify what you are feeling. Name your emotion: sad, angry, depressed, anxious, worried, irritable. Once we can label our emotion, we know what we need to do to change it.
Next, do the opposite of what you are feeling. For example:
If you're feeling sad, do something that makes you happy: go for a walk, pet your dog, call your best friend, or watch a funny movie.
If you're feeling angry, do something soothing: wrap up in a soft blanket, light a candle, drink a cup of hot tea, or meditate.
If you're feeling anxious, do the thing that makes you anxious (but be safe. If you are anxious about walking home alone at 3am, don’t walk home alone at 3am)! If you are scared to speak to someone, speak to them. If you are nervous to go out, go out. If you are scared to ask for a raise at work, write out what you want to say and then ask for that raise!
The idea is that we stop engaging in behaviors that amplify our unwanted feelings, and start engaging in behaviors that help us feel better. As with all DBT skills, this takes time and practice in order to see results.
Create your own list of actions you can take when you are experiencing difficult feelings. What are the things you do that are opposite from how you are feeling?