Controlling Impulses by Starting Small (DBT Ice Cube)

Early on in my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and until I really got into the skills of DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), I had a pattern of quickly jumping from an impulse, thought, or emotion to an action. 

I felt anxious, so I would run or freak out.  I felt angry, so I would yell, throw something, or drive recklessly. I felt depressed or anxious, so I would self-sabotage or self-harm in some way.

As a result of this unfortunate lack of mindfulness and no resources or tools learned to cope, I had an automatic response of reacting.  I have experienced a lot of regret and suffered a lot of consequences (in relationships, in my career, and my health) because of this pattern.

Because I would experience major dysregulation of my emotions, in an attempt to feel better quickly,  I would take actions that made me feel better in the moment but that would shortly thereafter (and sometimes for the longer term) make my circumstances and overall feelings worse.

One skill that helped very early on with this issue is the DBT skill of holding an ice cube.  It may sound silly or very simple, but once you try it and find that it works, you may think there really is something to these DBT skills.

Image Credit

I was first introduced to this skill in therapy. Our group therapist brought ice cubes into the room and asked each of us to hold one as long as we could.  We were asked to just notice and observe the sensations and thoughts we had as we held it, to hold it as long as we could tolerate it, and we discussed the experience afterward. 

Everyone, of course, had a different experience, but most everyone agreed that the ice cube provided an excellent distraction and that the intense physical sensations drew all of their attention.

This was my experience as well.  Over the course of the week from that class to my next, I had several episodes of intense emotions, and during one of them, I decided to hold an ice cube over the sink. It helped! It created an intense physical sensation without causing any self-harm, and all of my attention was focused on it.

I held the ice as long as I could. It melted quite a bit into the sink before I let the rest of it go.  Holding the ice cube allowed me to put time and space between the initial intensity of my emotions/thoughts and any action I took as a result. It was an ice cube intervention, and it worked. 

Have you ever tried the ice cube skill?
What other ways have you distracted or used distress tolerance to prevent you from doing something that makes your situation worse?

Thank you for reading.
More soon.


  1. Like this a lot. I start counting when my anxiety level rises. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Counting is another GREAT way to cope. Some count breaths as well. Thank you for the nice comment. ♥

  2. I've been having a really hard time. Very bad anxiety which doesn't result in an attack where I think I'm dying, but I feel like I leave my body, feel disconnected, can't eat - I believe this is the disassociation. I've never been a cutter, although I've contemplated it. I just really needed some relief just now, so I tried the ice cube - it worked! I can't believe it. Your site is great. Thanks.



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