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DBTalk: Wave of Emotion

Yael Dorfman and Bashi Levine, LPC, ACT

Module 3: Emotion Regulation, Part 3. Concepts taught: Wave of Emotion, Check the Facts, Problem Solving, Opposite Action

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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I’m thrilled that the girls have begun implementing ABC PLEASE. As homework, they completed worksheets rating their emotion levels before and after pleasant activities, and they’ve started figuring out which strategies and activities work for them.

Several girls reported that they feel less vulnerable and better equipped to handle emotional situations, but they still have difficulty navigating negative emotions (like we all do!). Fortunately, the rest of the module focuses on in-the-moment skills to be used to cope effectively with emotions and change the problematic ones (this is part of the “change” element of DBT).

Several specific mindfulness skills help regulate emotions:

• The Wave skill: Experience emotions as a wave.

• Check the facts: Determine if the problem really is as you see it.

• Problem solving: Look for solutions.

• Opposite action: Change or reduce emotion.

Since the girls are becoming so proficient in the skills, they’re eager to explain.


The aqua aerobics class went great, and my friend was thrilled that I’ve “crawled out from under my rock” (as she so subtly put it). It really made me feel better! One small step; I know I have to keep the momentum going (easier said than done), but I’m hopeful that it’ll help me onto a healthier, happier path.

Because I’m less prone to emotional outbursts than some of the other girls, I thought that this module would not be as crucial for me as it is for them. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in DBT, it’s that every skill can help — and I don’t know myself as well as I think I do!

Take the wave skill. When Bashi introduced it, I started tuning out — after all, I don’t do a lot of yelling and screaming and dramatics. But then something she said caught my attention: sometimes it feels like an emotion will never go away… like we’re stuck in it.

(Take last week’s freak-out over a test. I recall, cringingly, gasping that I will not be calm until I know I’ve passed!)

So, I sat up like the good girl that I am and listened closely.

The wave skill is the art of experiencing an emotion. We all experience emotions — but we’re usually fighting the negative ones on some level. Feeling like an emotion will never go away is terrible, so we naturally try to avoid or stifle the emotion — or, especially with positive emotions, try too hard to hold on to it — which hardly ever works and just leads to a break in the dam and a flood of overwhelming emotion.

The wave skill teaches us that when we feel emotion, welcome it, identify it, and allow it to come and go — like a wave — it helps us deal with that emotion effectively. Here’s how to do it:

• Step back and just notice:

• Name the emotion.

• Notice where you’re feeling the emotional sensation (racing heart, hot face, knotted stomach); experience the sensations as fully as possible.

• Observe how long it takes for the emotion to recede.

• Don’t judge your emotion; practice loving (or at least accepting) it.

• Don’t try to push away the emotion, and don’t hold on to it either; experience it as a wave, ebbing and flowing.

• Remember: you are not your emotion and you don’t need to act on it.

• Think of times when you felt differently; remind yourself that this too will pass.

• Practice willingness.

• Radically accept your emotion.

I’ve written down the skill on a little cheat sheet and am keeping it handy — easier than trying to remember it when in the throes of emotion. (Excerpted from Teen Pages, Issue 689)

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