Strategies for dealing with out of control emotions

What I’m learning from Kevin’s DBT classes.

By Debra Muzikar

The first Wednesday of each month at 4:00 PM Kurt and I drive to El Cajon and pick up Kevin. We take Kevin out to dinner at his favorite little Mexican restaurant in University Heights. After our meal we walk to an office building where we attend a class with Kevin. A support person (Kurt and I are those people) are required to attend this class each month. Kevin has been attending weekly sessions for the last four months. In eight more months he will graduate and receive a certificate of completion.

The little classroom is filled with up to eight adults with dual diagnoses (a developmental disability and another mental health diagnosis) and their parents or support staff members. The instructor is a middle-aged man who has an adult child with a developmental disability. The class is funded by the San Diego Regional Center.

The first thing the class does is check in with their emotions. On the board is a chart with numbers and emotions. A person is calm if they are a #1. They are out of control when they are a #5. Most people who attend the class are between a #1 and a #3.

The teacher says if you are at a #5 you probably won’t be in class. We are all learning strategies to keep safe. When our emotions are out of control, we can risk our own safety and the safety of others. It is okay to be angry. It isn’t okay to physically or verbally abuse another person. We are learning strategies to deal with our emotions in healthy ways.

Each student has a workbook with lesson plans. The workbook is about managing emotions , making good decisions, and developing strategies for every-day living. The instructor talks about his own life and times when he has trouble managing his own emotions.

“I got a flat tire on the freeway and boy was I angry,” he may say. Then he will ask the students what they would do if they got a flat tire. Most of the students don’t drive, but it opens up a discussion about strategies for dealing with uncomfortable situations.

“I took a deep breath,” the instructor says. And then he points to the blackboard. On a is a list of steps. #1 on the list is “Get a Clear Picture.”

“I was on the freeway. I felt like waving down a car to help me, but then I realized I have a cell phone and can call for help,” he says. “It probably would not be safe to wave down a car,” he continues.

Other strategies listed on the board involve checking in with your body; evaluating the emotion you are feeling; and writing out strategies for ways to deal with certain emotions. The class teaches the students how to be safe using Dialetical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) techniques. DBT is a cognitive behavioral approach for emotional regulation. It is based on the concepts of distress tolerance, acceptance, and mindful awareness.

Being able to identify the emotion you are feeling is an important step in the process. On the board are faces with emotions. The students are asked questions about what events would trigger certain emotions.

listofemotionsOne of Kevin’s classmates is a fifty year old man. His mom, a young looking woman in her seventies, asks a question.

“What strategies can my son employ so he doesn’t call me 100 times a day? He gets very upset when I’m not home or when I don’t answer the phone.”

The instructor asks the student “We’ve talked about this. What are you to do instead of calling your mom when you feel anxious?”

The student responds “I don’t remember. I get very anxious when she doesn’t answer the phone.”

This man is close to graduating. This is his second time he has gone through the lessons.

The instructor says “Remember one technique is to distract yourself. For instance writing down all the names of the bands you know from A to Z.  The list would go Abba, The Beatles …” I think to myself that would be a good strategy for Kevin as well. The student is into music, like Kevin is into music. (One of Kevin’s distraction strategies can be to list all the mariachi bands he knows alphabetically).

“Oh yes, now I remember,” he says. The mom nods her head. This will be something she can remind him to do when he’s feeling anxious. Kevin also has an issue about becoming upset when someone doesn’t answer the phone right away. This sometimes leads to inappropriate text messaging.

The students are learning “New Me” activities. These are a list of activities they can do to divert their attention from disturbing places their mind may be taking them. On Kevin’s list of “New Me” activities is practicing the piano, going for a walk, listening to music, playing video games, talking to people at his home.

The teacher talks about being safe and boundaries.

“What would you do if you were on the bus and someone asked you for money?” he asks.

“I would tell them to go away,” one student says.

“I would give it to them,” another says.

The teacher talks to the students about talking to strangers on buses – when is it appropriate and when it may not be.

“What would you do if your new best friend says he wants a candy bar and you have no money. And then he asks you to steal the candy bar from the grocery store?” the teacher asks.

Kevin responds, “I would say no because I don’t want to go to jail.” I think good. He’s learned that lesson.

By the time class is over it’s dark outside. We drive home and talk about what we’ve learned.

The class is a benefit to both Kurt and me as well. One of my favorite writers is Caroline Myss, an intuitive healer. She says our mission in our lives is to learn how to manage our own energy. Managing our emotions is part of managing our energy. Many times I will remind myself when someone triggers emotions of anger or irritation in me, to go through the steps that we are learning in Kevin’s class. I will take a deep breath, get a clear picture and think of “New Me” activities I can do. I can take a bath, listen to music, or go out for a walk.

We don’t have to be hostage to our emotions.


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