Moving through distress

” Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” C.S. Lewis

Guidelines for letting go of emotional suffering:

  1. Identify and label the most prominent feeling in one word (anxiety, sadness, rage). Do not try to change it, figure out why you are feeling it or act on it. Just acknowledge it.
  2. Take note of any bodily sensations (racing heartbeat, lump in throat, heat in face) that go along with the feeling and don’t try to block them. Stay open and aware of the wave of sensations that are flowing through you. Become aware of your breathing without trying to force it to be a certain way.
  3. While staying connected to your inner experience consciously take in your external environment as well. What do you see, smell, hear, feel in your immediate surroundings? Just notice.
  4. Feel both feet firmly on the ground. After you’ve spent some time willingly opening up to the feeling, ask yourself what small step(s) you can make right now in order take good care of yourself and to move closer to your values.

These steps will get easier with practice. The purpose of them is to re-train your mind/body not to fight, deny, challenge, judge, or otherwise try to control, uncomfortable feelings like anxiety. With experience you will learn to trust the ebb and flow of internal experience so that you do not have to waste time and energy trying to get rid of them, which conclusive research shows totally backfires, especially with anxiety. A DBT acronym that supports this practice is RIDE THE WAVE, which stands for Register body sensations, Identify action urges, Determine the emotion, Express yourself nonjudgmentally, Take deep breaths, (keep) Hands and body open, Establish a grounded position and finally watch and notice your emotion as if it were a wave (taken from Aguirre and Galen’s infinitely useful little book, Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder: Relieve Your Suffering Using the Core Skill of Dialectical Behavoir Therapy). I would like to point out that this book, like the many others on DBT, teaches practical ways of dealing with challenging emotions so it is not just for those who identify with the diagnostic label of BPD. Even without remembering the acronym, (which in stressful moments can be hard to do), the image of the wave is helpful because it reminds us that emotions are always flowing and we will not be stuck on a crest forever. I also like the wave motif because it makes me think of something cool, fresh and expansive, as opposed to constricted, rigid and stuffy, like trying to fight anxiety.