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Medically Reviewed by
Cimone Safilian-Hanif, PhD in International Psychology, on March 1, 2024


Welcome to the first exercise of the third module of Emotion Regulation.

In DBT, primary emotions are the immediate emotional reactions to the things that are happening around us - they do not require thinking and they happen very fast. For example, your friend makes a joke about your outfit, and you immediately feel irritated.

Secondary emotions are emotions you feel as a response to your primary emotions. For example, if you feel ashamed about being irritated at your friend, this is called a secondary emotion. If you are a person who experiences overwhelming emotions, it is very common to feel numerous secondary emotions very fast as a response to how you first felt. This process can be exhausting and it can result in engaging in coping behaviors that are not good for you.

In this exercise, we will look at a 6-step technique that will help you slow down this emotional process and prevent you from engaging in harmful coping behaviors.

DBT Emotion Regulation: Recognizing Your Emotions
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Marsha Linehan, the founder of DBT, developed a 6-step technique that will help you look more closely at the way your emotions spiral out of control. When you familiarize yourself with this technique, you will be able to apply it next time you feel like you are burdened by an avalanche of overwhelming emotions that are piling up.

Sometimes we are not even aware of everything that we felt in the situation, or how we were actually thinking about the situation. Becoming mindful about these six phases, as opposed to being on autopilot, can make a world of difference between a healthy and a harmful way of coping with an emotional whirlwind.

Step One: Describe the Situation

Think of a situation from the past where you felt overwhelmed with a lot of emotions. It can be about any aspect of your life. Describe the situation - what happened, where it happened, who was involved.

Step Two: What Caused the Situation

Write down your thoughts on what you think caused the situation. The way you explain the situation to yourself will shape your emotions about the situation. Try to remember the situation you picked and be honest about what your thinking process was like during the event. What do you think caused the main aspects of the situation?

Step Three: Primary and Secondary Emotions

Now that you described the situation and what you think caused it, it's time to describe how you felt as a result. Try to remember what your emotions were. What did you first feel? Were there other emotions that you felt as a response to the first one? For example, maybe first you felt disappointed at somebody, and very shortly afterward you felt anger and self-hatred, and eventually that led to you feeling sad. When you feel overwhelming emotions, you probably have physical sensations in your body because of the emotions. Do you remember how your body felt during the situation? Were you tense, had a fast heart-beat, or sweating? Perhaps you felt like crying and your body started trembling.

Step Four: Identify Your Urges

What did you want to do as a result of your emotions? What was your first urge? What action did you want to take? This is not necessarily what you eventually did, it can be just a thought that you briefly had. This is a very important step as you become more used to this technique. Next time you find yourself in a situation where you experience overwhelming emotions, recognizing your urges can help you to not automatically act on them.

Step Five: What Did You Do?

In this step, think about what you actually did. What action did you take as a result of your emotions? Take your time and try to remember. Did you have an argument with somebody because you felt really hurt and angry? Try to remember what you said to the other person if there are other people involved in the situation.

Step Six: Outcomes

How did this situation, your emotions and your resulting actions affect you later? Was the outcome of this situation good for you or not really? This step focuses on the consequences that you may experience in the longer term. Being observant and honest with ourselves about whether the outcome of our emotionally-induced actions is good or bad for us can be very important for making a change.


Phase Experience
Describe the situation I had a usual day at work, I came home where I live alone, and had an evening by myself. There was nothing extraordinary about the day.
What caused the situation? I live a boring life, I avoid everything that is out of my comfort-zone. So just like every other day, nothing exciting happened.
Primary and secondary emotions At first I felt really bored, but this grew into a feeling of sadness and disappointment about the lack of interesting things going on in my life. By the end of the day I just felt really empty.
Identify your urges I didn't feel like doing anything useful, I just wanted to sit in front of the TV and drink wine.
What did you do? That is exactly what I did.
Outcome I drank more than I wanted to, I woke up the next morning, hung-over with a terrible migraine. I had to call in sick and I missed work.
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Go through the six steps on the worksheet and record your answers.

DBT Emotional Regulation: Recognizing Your Emotions

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How is this exercise different from the mindfulness exercise we did about exploring emotions?

This exercise, as opposed to the mindfulness exercise about describing your emotions, looks at the whole context of how the primary and secondary emotions take place - the environmental factors (the situation that took place), how you explained the situation to yourself, your urges, actions and the outcome of your actions. The mindfulness exercise explores the nature of a single emotion and is meant to help you observe more often what you feel. So, make sure that you first did the mindfulness module to prepare yourself for looking into the broader context of your emotional processing.

Although I do experience overwhelming emotions, I can't think of a situation that recently happened.

There are several important things that can help you. First, try to be as honest with yourself as you can. Remind yourself that you are doing this exercise so that you can learn new, healthy ways of coping with your overwhelming emotions. Second, you may more easily remember the outcome of the situation first - usually the outcome of an exhausting and long emotional process can be significant. If you still feel like you can't properly remember these six steps, then go back to the mindfulness module and practice that core skill first.

How is looking at a past situation going to help me cope with overwhelming emotions in the future?

Getting familiar with these six steps is going to help you slow down the overwhelming emotional process you'd encounter in the future. Becoming aware of how these six aspects take place can give you the power to control the whole process better. So, instead of choosing a coping strategy that is not healthy, next time you can choose a better way to cope. Also, this is only the first exercise from this module. We will cover many helpful exercises, tips and strategies that you can use to regulate your emotions.

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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 Your Emotions

  1. For me, and for the situation I chose to analyze, this exercise brought back the painful feelings I am trying to treat, w/out really any new insight. The CBT worksheet was much more helpful to me. Perhaps if I had known I should choose a case where I fail to recognize my feelings at the time.

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