A member of my DBT Family Skills Training recently asked me, “So, how exactly do you do mindfulness when you are emotionally dysregulated and in the ‘Red Zone’?”
Great question! I think of times when I have been angered by my children’s behavior when they were teens, distraught about the loss of a relationship, or battling anxiety before a public talk. Then my honest answer is “Ugh, I didn’t do it well.” In these cases, my responses often made my emotional reactivity more intense (and created more problems).
It is extremely difficult to practice mindful awareness when one is emotionally flooded. By definition, when we are emotionally dysregulated, we are more likely to act on urges of mood dependent behaviors, to find it difficult to soothe or establish a balanced, effective level of physiological arousal, to redirect or reorient our attention toward valued actions which move us closer to our goals. This makes mindlessness a lot more likely than mindfulness. And we may humbly admit to have seen the unpleasant consequences that followed.
And yet at other times, we were able to become more mindful.
So what can we do--how can we apply mindfulness when in the red zone? I posed this question to a panel of experts, that is, members of our DBT Grad Group. Their names have been changed for purpose of confidentiality. They have been through the DBT Skills Group at least a year and most have been in Grad Group for several years. Their responses show what is actually possible to learn when practicing these skills to take hold of the mind using observe, describe or participate in nonjudgmental, one-mindful, and effective ways.
Cathy: As one who's been in the red zone of late, I can say what works for me is changing my body chemistry in some way. Vigorous exercise, even if it means dropping to the floor and doing abs, seems to shake me up enough to cause a change in my mood. Also, getting outside gives more space for the many racing thoughts. It also helps to get the sunlight. And the biggest opposite action is for me to tell someone how I feel; instead of staying in isolation.
Beth: I agree with Cathy about talking with someone when you feel terrible, instead of isolating, which is the default, for me. Getting outside sometimes helps me, too, noticing the little things that can take you out of yourself. Conscious breathing. Self-soothing. Restorative yoga with props and sometimes with a guided tape. The senses 5-4-3-2-1 game (noticing 5 shapes/colors, 4 sounds, 3 sensations, 2 smells and 1 taste).
When in the red zone during an interaction with someone: connect to your body, even if it is your pinky finger only; think and do "soft belly"; breathe consciously; focus on what they are really saying rather than your own reaction. Sometimes the only solution for me is pushing away, even though that is kind of the opposite of mindfulness.
Probably the most important is: connection with someone else.
Earl: For me it starts with acknowledging that I am in the red zone, and doing the best I can to be gentle with myself, and saying it out loud (naming it) – “I am in the red zone.” This has the effect of grounding me just enough to break away somehow with a mindfulness exercise (counting my breaths, a pattern on a shirt, counting foot taps).
Virginia: This is what I do when I get to the red zone: First recognize the red zone, then take 3 deep breaths slowly no matter what. Then there are several options: walk away from the object of dysregulation by saying something like, "This is not a good time for me to talk. I'll be back." Then keep walking (or riding my bike) until some of the emotional energy dissipates. Then observe and describe your emotions as if you were talking to a friend about the issue. Start each sentence with "I feel..." and do not let yourself descend into blaming the other person(s) or thing(s). So something like, "I feel offended and hurt by..." and not "I feel that you are an idiot..." Even the practice of writing down what you feel will dissipate some of the emotional energy. The key is to center on what I feel and not the perceived faults of the other person(s) or thing(s). Then I tell myself that everyone is doing the best they can whether I believe that at the time or not.
Lastly, I return to the scene of emotional dysregulation and discuss what I feel and what the other person feels. It is important to listen without attaching myself to the other's emotions and not letting their emotions dysregulate me. If anything happens to start the red zone climb I start the process all over again.
Jane: First, I have to know that I'm IN the red zone…and to say a mantra involving my Higher Power. It helps me to keep a "neutral" mind, at least for a while! Also, exercise is fantastic for changing my mood. I have tix for plays in the future to look forward to and doing some creative activity is a big help.
I find these creative responses from our DBT grads to be so helpful. We can see practical and specific ways to one-mindfully observe and nonjudgmentally describe which can lead to more ways to effectively participate. And while still difficult, its possible to do so in the most challenging of emotion mind moments!
Here’s a summary of our experts’ (DBT Grads) recommendations for navigating through the red zone.
· Recognizing that we are in the red zone.
· Change body experience or awareness.
· Re-direct attention to an ally or valued actions.
· Take a break from the situation.
· Mindfully observe and describe emotion.
· Recall “we are doing the best we can.”
· Talk with someone you are close to who can really listen.
· Validate and be validated.
Let’s imagine (just for a minute!) a painful interaction that you experienced with your partner. Chances are that the pain you experienced was in response to something that either you or your partner did (or didn’t do).
Now let’s take a quick look at whether either of you were: 1) “snagged” at a high level of emotional/physical arousal of anger, fear, or shame (or extremely under aroused if depressed), 2) that made it difficult to refrain from acting on that emotion in a way that was later regretted, 3) while also finding it difficult to redirect your attention in a more positive or effective direction, and 4) which got in the way of acting toward your healthy goals of how you want to be in this relationship. These four tasks of emotion regulation (modulate physiological arousal, redirect attention, refrain from mood dependent behaviors, and organize constructive behavior in the service of our values and goals) are compromised when we are emotionally imbalanced or dys-regulated.
Typically, our painful interactions are marked by dysregulated emotions. We might describe this as a time of “emotional flooding” or the “red zone.” Knowing when you or your partner are in or are approaching this “red zone” intensity of emotional dysregulation can be potentially useful to help contain a painful conflict or misunderstanding.
DBT offers an approach that is uniquely suited to addressing the role of emotion regulation in our relationships. Many problematic behaviors and difficulties in communication are caused by these times of imbalanced or dysregulated emotions.
In our Family & Couple Skills classes, we use a “Red Zone Worksheet” to identify our personal scale (from 10-100) of increasing levels of emotional intensity (available below). This becomes a personal road map with our unique signposts for when we are approaching the red zone of emotional dysregulation and the likely problem behaviors that cause us regret and our loved ones pain. These signposts include the unique thinking, body experiences and urges that occur at each level of a particular emotion, say fear or anger. We can then begin to notice these signposts when we are in emotionally vulnerable or activating situations.
Back to our imagined painful interaction with our partner…let’s say our partner is in the midst of a highly agitated state of anger or fear, how do we respond in a way that doesn’t make things worse? From a DBT perspective, there are a number of options. You can find several of these discussed in The High Conflict Couple: A DBT Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy and Validation by Alan Fruzzetti. Another resource that couples might miss is called “The Five Steps Response.” In my experience, Shari Manning has provided a very useful outline that is simple enough to recall when one is faced with such a challenging interaction. You can read more about this in her very practical and helpful book, Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. In my opinion, this book can be helpful for anyone with an emotionally sensitive loved one, regardless of diagnosis. In part, this is because the focus of the Five Steps Response is on you, not your loved one. As Shari Manning reminds us, “At the end of the day, you can only change your own behavior—your responses to your loved one. The good news is that sometimes when you change your behavior, your loved one’s behavior will change also.”
Five Steps for Responding to “Red Zone” Behavior (adapted from Loving Someone with BPD by Shari Manning)
1. Regulate Your Own Emotion
4. Brainstorm and Troubleshoot
5. Get Info on Your Role and Updates on the Outcome
This can work, right? With practice, practice and more practice, the Five Steps can be very helpful. And the practice can start now. Again imagine your painful interaction with your partner…this time, see yourself pausing to breathe, to tense and release some of the body tension, and to give yourself some validation and encouragement. See yourself turning toward your partner with more caring and openness to express your recognizing and understanding what they are experiencing, feeling, or wanting. Imagine that you then gently ask him or her “Would you prefer that I really listen to how this is for you, or offer advice, or help you figure out what to do?”
Sometimes, the first of the Five Steps is the most difficult. When we are highly emotionally aroused, it can be quite a challenge to self-regulate. Recall, that the four tasks of emotion regulation may be compromised in that very moment for us. If this is the case, it can be helpful to take some time away from the situation and to temporarily separate yourself from your partner. You may simply need to take a break and use that time to regulate your emotional state so that you can re-engage more effectively. This is NOT the same as escaping, abandoning, rejecting, avoiding or punishing your partner. And this needs be clear to your partner! One way for this to be clear is for your partner and you to agree that you will experiment with constructively taking a break or a “time-out.” The analogy of a sports team taking a time-out is relevant here. When a basketball or football team takes a time-out, it is not a surprise because they have agreed in advance to allow this. Its also not a punitive act against the other team, it’s meant to be a constructive action to play more effectively. You will also notice that when a team calls a time-out, that they return when they have agreed. The team doesn’t hop on the bus, never to return. They return and re-engage in the game. Here are some suggested (and I believe, necessary) ingredients of effectively using a time-out.
Taking a Needed Break—How to Use Time-Outs
Take a few minutes to take a break or a time out so you can cultivate mindfulness, regulate emotions, and prepare to effectively engage your partner.
1. Recognize the escalating tension or arousal of negative emotion. Propose to take a time-out from the interaction to reduce the intensity of agitation to a more workable level. Propose when you want to return and discuss the issue further. Negotiate as needed.
2. Take the time apart for however long as been requested. What you do with this time makes a big difference. Continued blame or arguing in your mind leads to a predictable result. On the other hand, you can… Use the time to de-escalate, calm and regulate your emotions; cultivate mindfulness; take responsibility for your ineffective behavior and prepare to effectively engage your loved one. Breathe 3x. Clarify what your primary emotion is; consider how you can express this directly and effectively. Listening to Wise Mind (your inner knowing, intuition and compassion) and ask yourself what it is that you so deeply long for. Remind yourself of how you value having a caring, supportive relationship
3. Return at the agreed time. Negotiate another time-out again if you, your family member or friend needs additional time. Begin by stating what you are willing to change to be more effective in your behavior and in this discussion. Actively listen with efforts to validate your loved one’s experience.
Here you have three sets of tools to use when your partner and you are in a painful interaction. As you may have already noticed, these skills are just as relevant with other family or friends. First, you can employ your mindfulness skills to monitor the level of emotional intensity. The Red Zone Worksheet might help with that. Second, you can use the Five Steps to more effectively manage how you respond to your loved one. And third, you can use a Time-Out when needed to self-regulate so that you can validate yourself, your partner, and then complete the Five Steps. Warning--you may not experience immediate success. DBT reminds us that behavior change is a process: we learn about a skill, then we “practice, practice, practice” that skill until… eventually, we are able to apply that important skill in those situations when we most need to.
Good practicing! I welcome hearing about your experiences with these skills.
~ Understanding Emotion Dysregulation in Couple Conflict