Surviving an Emotional Crisis Step by Step

We've all been there.

emotional crisis, how to survive emotional crisis, DBT

Something happens and your emotions take over. You can no longer think clearly and logic is not an option. You are crying, enraged, hysterical, panic-stricken or controlled by any of a number of different emotions. So what do you do to survive the crisis without making things worse for yourself or others?

Here's a step by step guide to getting those emotions back in check.

1. Take 5 slow breaths. Breathe in for a count of 3 and breathe out for a count of 5.  Try to send the breath down into your belly. Notice any slowing down that you might feel, or lessening of tension. Count each breath as it happens.

2. Go to your freezer and take out a single ice cube. Go somewhere you can be alone and watch the ice cube melt in your hands. Do nothing else other than observe the ice cube. This might be uncomfortable as your hands get cold, but that's ok. In fact that exactly what you want to happen. As the ice melts, notice the shape and texture of the ice. Notice how the shape changes. Is the ice uniform or are there gradients, bubbles, or cracks? Does it melt faster or slower if you squeeze the ice? How does the water run off or through your hands? Does it feel pleasant or unpleasant?

3. Once the ice has melted, go to your kitchen again and get a shallow, wide pan, like a roasting pan.  Fill it with 3-4 inches of water and place approximately 10 ice cubes in the pan. Place the pan on the floor and place a towel next to it (you'll need it in a minute). Kneel down in front of the pan of ice water, bend at the waist and place your face in the water for 10 seconds while holding your breath then sit up for a moment. Do this 3 times. After the third time you can sit up and dry off your face. You should notice that your emotions are considerably lessened now and you might even feel calm.

4. Do 1 min of jumping jacks to get your heart rate up just a bit.

5. Lie down on the floor, a sofa or a bed. Close your eyes and focus on your feet.  Squeeze your toes and feet as hard as you can for about 10 seconds and that release, relax and breathe. Notice the feeling of relaxation in your feet. Now squeeze your calf muscles, tight, tighter, and tighter still... Relax and breathe. Notice the feeling of relaxation in your feet and calfs. Continue to work your way up through your upper legs, butt, belly, torso, shoulders, arms, hands, neck, face and scalp. After each squeeze - release - relax - breathe cycle take a moment to notice relaxation in your body. Don't forget to do the face too. Often we hold tension in our jaws, our forehead, our eyes, our mouth.

6. Now just lie there for a few minutes, enjoying the full body relaxation. Feel yourself melting into the floor.

If you've stayed with me this far, perhaps you'll go one step further. 

When you're in crisis you WILL NOT REMEMBER to do this skill. You need to try it out a couples of times when you are not in crisis so that you can build muscle memory and the process becomes automatic. Schedule 20 min for yourself this week to try this, step by step, this week. Notice how you feel on a scale of 1-100 (1 being totally mellow and 100 being as upset as you can possibly imagine) before and after the exercise. You will notice a change in your feelings. Every person who has tried this exercise has let me know that they felt more relaxed afterwards, even if they weren't in crisis. You need to practice the skill so that it's there when you need it.

Now that you have gotten through the crisis, consider what you will do to avoid another one. Perhaps you have a friend who can help you, or perhaps you have a therapist. If you already have coping skills that work, fantastic. If you could use some better skills, consider seeing a therapist who can coach you on this and avoid those crisis moments.