“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” – Publilius Syrus
This week I attended a 2-day workshop on emotion regulation in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), conducted by DBT’s creator, Dr. Marsha Linehan. The past two days (along with a thick binder) have been filled with copious amounts of information on specific skills for effectively regulating emotions. While some of the information received was part of Dr. Linehan’s currently unpublished updated DBT Skills Training Manual (and is not permitted to be distributed to the public), there were many useful tips and insights that I am able to share with you.
One particularly useful/practical tip learned today has to do with managing extreme emotions when emotional arousal is very high. When we are in a state of extreme emotional arousal, our brains do not function properly to effectively take in new information and process it. It is as if we are so overwhelmed with emotions having to do with the current stressful situation that we are truly incapable of using any DBT skills (e.g., distress tolerance or emotion regulation skills).
How to Activate the Mammalian Diving Reflex
In order to get ourselves to a place of being capable of processing information, we must find a way to essentially “reset” the nervous system. Fortunately, all mammals have something called the “mammalian diving reflex” that forces the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to kick in, which functions to relax us and calm us down.
Dr. Linehan explained that this reflex is activated by icy cold water (i.e., not freezing) on the face. In particular, the icy cold water must hit the parts of the face just below the eyes and above the cheekbones for the dive reflex to be activated. She suggests that when in an extremely heightened state of emotional arousal:
- Fill a bowl with icy cold water
- Bend/lean over
- Hold your breath
- Put face in icy cold water for 30 seconds
- Make sure that area underneath eyes/above cheekbones (most sensitive part of the face) feels the icy water
Dr. Linehan reports that this surprisingly simple technique will “calm you down immediately” and is “incredibly effective.” Other ways to activate the diving reflex and get the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and calm you down include an icy cold gel mask over/around the eye area. It is worth noting that this technique also works best (to activate the dive reflex) if you hold your breath and bend over for 30 seconds.
Caveats to using this technique:
- Activating the dive reflex slows the heart rate, so anyone with heart problems or a slow heartbeat should avoid this strategy
- Those with eating disorders (particularly anorexia nervosa) should avoid activating the dive reflex, as this is dangerous for the heart
Not convinced that something so simple could be so powerfully effective? Evolutionary processes have existed for thousands of years to provide means of regulating our emotions, since effective regulation of emotion is so vital to our survival. Consider how likely a person is to survive over the long-term if they are utterly incapable of calming themselves down when in an intense state of emotional arousal.
An incredible part of this simple technique is that it provides immediate relief and is intended to get you into a functional state of mind where you are capable of using problem-solving skills to solve the intense problem at hand. The next time that you experience an event so intense that you are completely overwhelmed to the point of not being able to think clearly or process information, activate the diving reflex. Thirty seconds later, you will be able to process incoming information and use problem-solving skills.
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Linehan, M. (June 6-7, 2011). Updates to emotion regulation and crisis survival skills in dialectical behavior therapy. Austin, TX: Behavior Tech, LLC.