DBT model of emotions
Adults, DBT

How Are You Feeling?

A brief introduction to the DBT model of emotions

When someone at work asks “how are you?”,  what do you say?  Or when you ask a friend or family member, how they are?  What do they say?

One thing I value as a therapist, is reflecting on the questions and more generally words I use in sessions.  When I ask “how are you feeling?” in sessions it has more recently been giving me pause.  It must be the cliché of it all.  A therapist asking “how are you feeling?  How original, Lizzy. 

I often hear words to describe our emotions as “fine”, “okay”, “good”, “bad”. And while that’s an important starting place, I believe much more can be discovered when we tune into our internal experience a bit more. I have come back to this reflection often and every time settle on the important truth that asking how we are feeling and understanding our emotions is not only a part of therapy, but essential for living.

Why Emotions Are Necessary

Our emotions are essential because they do three things. 

  1. They get us to act or get us moving towards action so we can react and respond. 
  2. They provide us information on making it easier to connect our internal world with our external world. 
  3. They give other’s clues and allow us to communicate to others when we need things.  

Reflection Point:  Take a moment to reflect on the different ways you might distract from your emotions and miss out on this important information.  It is quite common to do so and something to start bringing your attention to!

“How are you feeling” Beyond Just a Simple Question

infographic about CBT: thoughts, emotions, and feelings all impact each other. Begin dialectical behavior therapy DBT in rockville, MD at Montgomery County Counseling Center 20852

DBT’s model of emotions is a helpful tool to begin to identify how our emotions are shaped by things like our thoughts, our urges, our body language, our body’s physiological response, and what we actually end up doing.  When I was first was introduced to cognitive-behavior therapy’s version of this it was a simple triangle.  Our thoughts, emotions, and actions bi-directionally influence each other to produce our emotional experience. There would be an additional of the “triggering event” and maybe a floating section of our body’s physical sensations. 

As I learned more about DBT, I learned that the model of emotions expands upon that triangle and to me, more accurately captures what really happens to us.  It looks very complicated on first glance. And thats because emotions ARE very complicated.

DBT model of emotions

The model of emotions helps us start to identify all of these pieces to the emotional puzzle and bring awareness to what we are mindfully attentive of and what we are not.  For me, I became aware that when I experience an emotion, the physical sensations in my body are in the forefront of my mind and my attention. Therefore, I lack awareness and control of my thoughts, particularly when I was really sad, really anxious, or really angry.  

Reflection point: Look at the model of emotions above.  When you experience an intense emotion, what do you notice first?  Your thoughts, your urges, your body?

Using Model of Emotions in Our Daily Life

Of course, whipping out the model of emotions worksheet is not the most practical thing to do. But I want to offer two ways, and of course there are many more, to use model of emotions to your advantage.

 1. After experiencing an emotion you want to learn more about, be curious about it.

Whip out the model AFTER your emotional experience. Walking through the model of emotion can deepen your understanding about yourself. This begins to show us where we can intervene differently next time to help regulate ourselves in different ways next time around.

2. Taking a moment to do a mindful check-ins

For some of us, it is helpful to intentionally check-in on how we are feeling throughout our day.  How many minutes or hours go by before we look inward and ask the question:  how am I feeling and how do I know I am feeling this?  The model of emotions is super helpful in giving us cues and clues to know how we are feeling.  If you take regularly scheduled breaks to look at this model, you can build your awareness of your own emotional processing. The better you get at this, the less work you’ll have to do in between emotions. It will become more habitual for you to process your feelings during them rather than after them.

For help understanding the model of emotions or how it applies to you…

…check out either our DBT skills groups or individual therapy. It’s as easy as 1, 2 ,3!

  1. Contact us and tell us you want to learn more about the model of emotions
  2. Talk with our intake coordinator to schedule an appointment with one of our awesome therapists.
  3. Get started on learning your own emotional process NOW!

About The Author

Lizzy Kosin, LCSW-C

Lizzy Kosin, LCSW-C is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Therapist at Montgomery County Counseling Center in Rockville, MD. She earned her AM degree (equivalent to an MSW) from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Her training includes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Lizzy takes a casual approach to therapy. Because of this, she works very well with kids & teens. She also works with adults who want the benefits of therapy without feeling stuffy or over-medicalized. She values the importance of the mind-body connection and using experiential activities to keep the fun in building insight and motivating towards progress. Lizzy is licensed in both Maryland and Washington DC.

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