T2: Recognizing Signs of an Emotional Crisis

Cimone Safilian-Hanif, PhD Profile Photo
Medically Reviewed by
Cimone Safilian-Hanif, PhD in International Psychology, on February 5, 2024


In order to successfully prevent and cope with an emotional crisis, you first need to be mindful of what is happening before and during the situation of distress. You already practiced your mindfulness skills (module 1), so now you will be well equipped to observe and describe the warning signs, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors before and during the situation of distress. We usually have patterns that are similar from situation to situation. Knowing them (as well as the other skills presented later in the module) can help us deal with the crisis situation without making it worse. Let's begin.

Distress Tolerance: Recognizing the Signs of an Emotional Crisis
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This exercise teaches you to recognize when you are going into an emotional crisis, so you can learn to interrupt the pattern. Practice the exercise 3 times over the next week.

Step One: Think of the Last Time You Had an Emotional Crisis

Think of the last time you experienced an emotional crisis – or intense and overwhelming negative emotions. It can be anything that made you feel like you can't cope with the situation right in the moment. In this exercise, we will try to identify what usually happens before and during the emotional crisis, so it's okay if you can't pinpoint the details of the situation yet - we'll practice that now.

Step Two: Emotions, Thoughts, Behaviors (Before or During the Crisis)

In this step, we will work on recognizing what we usually feel, think, and do before and during the crisis (i.e. engaging in the problematic behavior).

Emotions: What did you feel during the emotional crisis? Try to remember. Is this how you usually feel when you experience an emotional crisis in similar situations? The emotions will be different for everyone, there are no rules.

Example: Let's say that the last time I had an emotional crisis, it was when I was having a fight with a friend of mine. I was feeling like I can't cope with the situation, and everything was just too much for me. It felt terrible. I felt a mix of rage, shame, and being hurt.

Thoughts: What do you usually think about before you start engaging in the problematic behavior? Try to remember. Describe the exact words that you were thinking. Spend a couple of minutes to think about whether this is how you usually think when you find yourself in similar situations.

Example: "I can't believe that she would criticize me like this. Everybody must be like this, just pretending to be good friends. I'm sure that our friendship is already ruined, so screw this!"

Behaviors: Try to remember what you usually do before and during the emotional crisis. Think about the actions that you engage in. Is this a pattern for you or is it more specific to the situation that you picked?

Example: "I start saying very hurtful things because I feel hurt myself. I am really not proud of this and I regret it every time I act this way, because it doesn't represent who I am. I become offensive and it's like I am a different person."

Step Three: Sensations, Environment, Key Triggers

Sensations: Can you describe the physical sensations that you feel before or during the emotional crisis? Try to remember. Usually, when we are very emotional, our bodies manifest that in a way that we can physically feel.

Example: "My pulse starts racing, and I can feel my face becoming very warm and red. I get a mild headache from all the anger that is quickly rising inside me. I have too much energy and I don't know what to do with it."

Environment and key triggers: Describe what usually happens in the environment around you before and during the emotional crisis. Is there something in particular that triggers the emotional crisis? Recognizing the key triggers that cause your intense emotions can be a very helpful asset for next time when you find yourself in a similar situation.

Example: "For this particular situation, the key trigger for me is the feeling of being hurt and like my friend is going to abandon the friendship that we've built. What's happening in the environment is that I usually get criticized. Usually, the criticism isn't meant to be as intense as I perceive it, but at the moment something just snaps in me."

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Use the worksheets to record your experiences working through an emotional crisis.

DBT Distress Tolerance: Emotional Crisis Worksheet

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What does an emotional crisis consists of?

An emotional crisis consists of intense negative emotions that we don't know how to cope with in the moment. That's why in the moment of the crisis, we may want to engage in a behavior that is not good for us (short-term or long-term), like drinking, excessive spending, taking drugs, or starting a fight with somebody. The point of practicing distress tolerance skills is to learn how to cope with a crisis situation without making it worse.

Is knowing the skill presented in this exercise enough for preventing emotional crises in the future?

This exercise helps with identifying and being mindful of the key warning signs, triggers, the usual way of how we feel and think before and during the emotional crisis. However, all of the other exercises in the distress tolerance skills module represent skills that are necessary for coping with an emotional crisis. Some will be more suitable in certain situations, while others skills in other situations. Knowing as many of the skills as you can will give you good leverage for successfully navigating overwhelming emotions in the future.

What if I can't exactly remember all the aspects from the emotional crisis I picked for this exercise?

If you tried to describe everything but you still can't remember it well enough, just bear in mind that you can be mindful of the next time you experience an emotional crisis and maybe do this exercise after it. This is important because often the aspects that we talk about in this exercise are similar in similar situations. That's why you'll be prepared to take measures and prevent the overwhelming emotions in the future from going out of control.

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If you have any behavioral health questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare or mental health care provider. This article is supported by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from behavioral health societies and governmental agencies. However, it is not a substitute for professional behavioral health advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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Comments About Recognizing Signs of an Emotional Crisis

  1. Thank you so much for all your help!! I will practice this daily as to help with my emotions and negative thoughts. Have a greater great

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