Something that I find really tough is labeling emotions. I tend to feel so many things at the same time that I can’t pull them apart, and I’m just left feeling confused, frustrated and often overwhelmed, rather than being able to pinpoint what’s going on. I was talking about this with Therapist 2.0 today, and she explained a couple of things about emotion that are completely new to me. As always, I’m trying to reiterate what she said from the distance of a couple of hours and without years of training in psychology, so it’s entirely possible I’ll get it confused. Humour me!

Anyway, she introduced me to this:


So, something happens. Let’s say I’ve arranged to meet a friend for tea, she cancels, and I later find out she had tea with someone else (prompting event). Chances are I’ll interpret this as an insult and get angry (although I won’t yet have identified it), which brings us to the next stage (brain and body changes). The emotion that this event triggers in me causes my brain to release a chemical into my system (adrenalin) which causes my body to react. My heart rate goes up, I physically tense up, my breathing gets shallow etc, which triggers an urge to respond. A typical response to anger would be to shout or lash out, which in turn leads to changes in my facial expression and posture. This is then followed by an action, and depending on whether or not I’ve caught it on time, I’ll either deal with the situation like a rational adult, or I’ll throw a tantrum (most likely I’ll land somewhere in the middle). At this point (hopefully) I’ll be able to identify that I’m angry and do something about it.

Every single emotion causes these reactions in every single one of us, and each of these emotions are trying to tell us something. It’s quite incredible to think about really. What absolutely blew my mind about all of this is just how complex and involved emotional responses are, and how little control we have over them. That said, there are two crucial stages at which we do have control – the interpretation of the event, and the actual response once the chemicals have had their merry way with us. This is where the work is.

DBT Self Help describes the function of emotion as being to  prompt behaviours, eg anger – fight, fear – run. But, what happens when our emotional responses are all out of whack with what’s going on around us, or we can’t identify what the emotion is? If we can’t identify the emotion, then we can’t understand why we’re reacting as we are and things feel completely out of control. This is where I get stuck, and where I suspect everyone who’s been told they have bpd gets stuck. When my response to something is either disproportionate or inappropriate, chances are it’s triggered something in me that has nothing to do with the reality of what’s going on in front of me. So here’s what I have to do. I think. When I find myself caught up in emotion, rather than trying to push it away or ignore it, I need to try and identify it, or them, because often there can be more than one emotion involved. If I can identify it and acually name it, then maybe I can figure out why I reacted as I did in the first place. Simple, right?!

(Apologies to any mental health professionals who may be reading and shaking their heads in despair at my very ham fisted explanation of this. I’m still learning!)

This article has 2 Comments

  1. I find the body sensations part the hardest bit to detect i.e. the facial expressions, body language etc. It’s like I’m totally disconnected from my body-that my mind is in one section and my body is in another. I think I actively ignore the physical sensations of my body because in the past, I’ve had people comment on how I frowned a lot (basically resting bitch face really) and I’d feel like they were intruding on my personal space by even making that comment…that I’m entitled to frown or sit/stand in whatever way I want and that they were trying to control me by even commenting on it. I had a therapist comment a *lot* on my body language during one session and I found it really aggravating. I’m wondering whether this type of experience is common…whether other people can relate to this.

    I find identifying the prompting event, the thoughts, thinking error and action urge easier because it’s much more factual..I know what to look out for now whereas with the body language, I would do it automatically without even being aware that I was frowning or smiling etc. It’s that bit harder to catch in the moment especially if the emotion is intense and I notice that the physical sensations for different emotions can be similar so that makes it more confusing! And I feel that the body language bit is a bit gimmicky..that even if I smile when feeling sad, it doesn’t magically change my mood.

    Would you be able to do a post on identifying body language, facial expressions, posture at some point in the future Fiona? I’d really appreciate it and thanks for outlining the model of emotion in DBT because I first discovered DBT online so online resources like blogs can actually help lots of people with their mental health 🙂

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