Are You Feeling an Urge? Then do “An Opposite Action”

In certain situations, it’s better to disengage from our emotional instincts rather than act on them impulsively. And here's how you can break a bad habit and form a better one.

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“My name is EVA, I’m 27 and I live in New York. I think that everything is hard work, getting out of bed, showering, answering emails and phone calls, paying the bills. If I didn’t have to, I would never leave the couch, my ipad and I would sit happily together as I zoned out on stupid television or played mindless games. Yes, this is my life, the life of a depressed person, but the funny thing is, no one knows it.

Yes that’s right. I “hold it together” so well that people around me, even my close friends and family, have no idea that inside I am falling apart. I go to work everyday, and I smile and engage in pointless office chitchat. I go out for a drink with my friends, and ask them about their life and when they ask about mine, I come up with some middle of the road way of saying “oh you know, same ole’”. I run my company so well that my employees would have no idea that I am dying on the inside. I do pay my bills, I do shower every day, and I do get out of bed. Does that mean I am not depressed? I don’t know. All I know is how I feel, and how everyday I just want to scream so loud about how much pain I am in.”

This soul, or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside us. If one has the courage to ask her what she thinks, she is always saying the very opposite to what other people say.

Virginia Woolf

Emotions can be very useful when they guide us to act in helpful and constructive ways, but sometimes they can be misleading and dangerous.

In certain situations, it’s better to disengage from our emotional instincts rather than act on them impulsively without questioning them or challenging them.

Infact for those who are struggling with an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or another mental illness, there are often a variety of unhelpful urges that they experience. For example, people who are experiencing depression may feel the urge to isolate from others. Individuals who are struggling with anxiety might experience the urge to avoid situations that cause them to feel anxious.

These urges come from a good place, as the individual is often trying to “feel better.” However, in the long-run they only serve to make the person feel even worse.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) encourages the use of “opposite action” when emotions are maladaptive, harmful, or overwhelming in some way. The idea is not to invalidate the reality of that emotional experience, but merely to transform that emotional experience into one that is more likely to bring about a desirable outcome.

The first step of this technique is to identify and name the emotion that you are experiencing. The next part is to determine whether the emotion (including it’s intensity and duration) “fits the facts of the situation.” Additionally, a person can ask themselves whether acting on the urge will be effective in the long-term. Then, based on these answers, a person decides whether to act on their urge or to do an action that is opposite to the urge.

So, “Opposite action” is a new way of thinking about what to do when you’re feeling

— anger
 — sadness/disappointment
 — anxiety, or
 — guilt/shame/embarrassment.

The ways people habitually respond to these emotions often make their problems worse in the long run

 — hiding, lying, or refusing to acknowledge someone else’s valid point when you’re feeling shame,
 — avoiding when you’re anxious
 — withdrawing when you’re sad, or
 — attacking/defending/or withdrawing when you’re angry.

So, let’s see an example about what to do when you’re feeling sad or when something has gone wrong:

People’s natural tendency when they’re feeling sad is usually to withdraw, retreat, slow down etc.

There’s an element of this that’s often helpful. For example, if you have something go wrong at work, in a relationship, or in your studies, then you step back and take some time to think about your next move.

An opposite action that can help lift your sadness is to do something that leaves you feeling confident and competent, gives you the sense that you’re moving in your valued life directions, and/or feels like you’ve achieved something worthwhile.

Doing something that’s generous and caring towards others can help. For example, offering help to someone that needs it at work.

A personal example based on my hobbies, if I feel like I’ve had a frustrating or unproductive day, I often write a blog post because I can get it finished, published, and then its out there permanently on the internet to help people. It means that even on the most unproductive day, I’ve still achieved something productive.

Then remember that when you’re feeling strong emotions you’re likely to be feeling a mixture of different emotions rather than only one type of emotion.

Try to identify all of the emotions you’re feeling rather than only the strongest emotions.

The best opposite action response in a particular situation may be for one of the other emotions you’re feeling rather than whatever emotion you’re feeling most strongly.

DBT Therapists, that encourage the use of “opposite action” skill, to identify the right emotion involved, use worksheets broken down into 4 easy steps:

· Identify the emotion

· Identify the resulting action

· Apply the opposite action

· Feel the opposite feeling

The goal of this worksheet is to help the client not only see the detrimental patterns in their behaviors when feeling negative emotions, but also showing them how it helps to resist the urge to give into these emotions and take positive steps to promote their own mental health and wellness.

In conclusion don’t forget that if you are struggling with a mental illness and are having trouble putting this exercise into practice, it’s so important to reach out for help from a trained professional psychoterapist.

Seeking help when you are struggling is a sign of true strength, not weakness. Additionally, it’s important to note that behavior change can take time.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


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