Behavior ties in with emotion because emotions come with an urge to act. Behavior is sometimes a direct expression of emotion. If we are skilled enough at emotion regulation to take the critical pause, label our emotion, and choose our behavior, it can be a modulated expression of emotion. But does it also work the other way? Can our behavior impact our emotions?
We can take steps to physically regulate strong emotions – for example, deep breathing, a body scan with progressive relaxation, mindfulness, stretching, or visualization. One example of how these things work is that we cannot be anxious if our body is completely relaxed. Have you ever tried thinking anxious thoughts, keeping your face relaxed and a smile on your face? Another example is using a “power pose” to change a feeling of helplessness or to pull ourselves out of the victim role. Even the advice to “count to ten” can be useful. Going outdoors, especially into nature, can also positively affect our emotions.
Another helpful practice is to express our emotions in a safe way, such as writing a letter that we don’t send, or writing in a journal. This helps to reduce the intensity of our emotions as if we had acted on them. There are also less common interventions such as sucking on ice cubes or taking a cold shower, which essentially distract us, helping to get us out of an endless loop of thinking about our emotions and feeling them more intensely.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) teaches a skill called “opposite to emotion action”. This is not a quick fix – it is a skill that requires practice. It helps us to manage and influence our emotions by acting opposite to them. This doesn’t mean suppressing or denying them—instead, we acknowledge the emotion and intentionally act in the (completely) opposite way. Over time, our actions (behavior) will reduce the painful emotion and replace it with an emotion that corresponds to our actions. DBT.tools presents in a concise way how this works, explaining that emotions come with an urge to act, but some emotions require thought before we act, so that our actions are helpful to the situation. The opposite-to-emotion-action skill goes further than thinking through our response so that we, for example, only scream instead of throwing over a vase. With opposite-to-emotion-action, we conclude that an emotion or its intensity doesn’t fit the situation, and we do completely the opposite so our emotion can be influenced by our behavior.
Using our behavior to influence our emotions is another tool for keeping us from going into a downward spiral and putting us on a more constructive path to coping with life’s stresses.