Ride the Wave

DBT Self Help - Ride the Wave

Distress Tolerance skills are a set of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy skills that are strategies to help you get though difficult feelings and situations, and tolerate (deal with, sit with, accept) the things that you can’t immediately change. Emotions can be extreme and lead to behaviors that are ineffective. You may not be able to change the stressful situation you’re in, but you can change the way you feel. Distress Tolerance skills are aimed to make your response to distress more effective.

When you are experiencing a strong emotion, it can feel like it’s going to last forever. You might go to extreme means to try to make it stop such as using destructive coping mechanisms. Once you get into a habit of using a particular action, it may seem like nothing else will cause the emotion to stop.

The truth about emotions is that they do not last, by nature. They come and go like waves on the ocean. Positive emotions fade into neutrality. Likewise, negative emotions eventually dissolve back into baseline.

Where you invite suffering in is when you try to manipulate emotions, either by trying to keep positive emotions around or end negative emotions artificially. The key is to let each emotion have its natural end. To do so, you have to have faith in two things:

  1. That this is not the last time you’ll ever have this particular positive emotion
  2. That the negative emotion will indeed pass

DBT skills are not always meant to be used in isolation from each other. They can be combined and used in series to build success. Radical acceptance is another skill that will aide your use of this one because it will help you put your faith in the above truths. Similarly, there’s a skill teaching how to let go of painful emotions.

Ride the Wave is about surfing the emotional waves. Instead of using destructive coping mechanisms to end the emotion early or hang on to an emotion, you use other DBT skills to ride the wave until it passes. It may be uncomfortable to use a skill that lacks defined steps or a handy acronym but for those of you who struggle with destructive habits, this may become one of the most-used skills in your toolkit.

Let Go of the Emotion, Not the Situation

Letting go of an emotion doesn’t mean that you’re letting go of the situation. It’s about weathering the emotion so you can be most effective. If you’re angry and having an argument, let go of the anger that’s making you want to react destructively. Once the anger has dissipated, return to the situation to finish the disagreement in a more effective way. You don’t always have to react when you are feeling a strong emotion. And you don’t need that emotion to power you. In fact, you’re often more effective when it’s come down to a manageable level or passed entirely.


You are feeling anger. It’s burning and burning you up from the inside with its intensity. Your action urge is to lash out verbally at the person who triggered your anger. Instead, pick a skill from your DBT toolkit. Use Wise Mind ACCEPTS to distract yourself from the immediate moment. Take a half an hour to watch a funny TV episode. Know that your anger is temporary. Be willing to let it go. That doesn’t mean you’re letting go of the situation, just getting to a place where you can be more effective.

You are feeling sadness. It’s dragging you down. Your action urge is to get in bed and never move. However, you need to eat dinner. Maybe you use IMPROVE the Moment and gently encourage yourself while imagining a world in which you’re happily cooking dinner. You poke one toe out of bed, set your feet on the floor one at a time and take it step by step. Sadness often takes a while to pass but action can help it evaporate more quickly.

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Additional Resources

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