Big Decisions, Avoidance, and Being Emotionally Sensitive (BPD, DBT)

As an emotionally sensitive woman who suffered for years with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and is now in recovery, I have noticed a tendency to avoid making large shifts in my life.  Perhaps it’s that whole “Don’t rock the boat” mentality that comes when I think about times when I have become incredibly emotionally dysregulated after choosing to make an anxiety provoking change.

Recently, I realized that this new coping mechanism, while it has been effective and helpful in many ways, has also been holding me back from continued growth.  Here’s a recent example.

I have been enrolled in a master’s program that recently became very overwhelming. Between the intensive course load and the triggering content (subjects that opened old wounds and caused PTSD and anxiety symptoms), I began to question whether I should continue on that path.
I had all kinds of worry thoughts:
  • Does this mean I’m sabotaging if I walk away from this?
  • Does this mean I’m having a relapse?
  • Does it mean I can’t handle things the way I thought I could?
  • What will people think of me? (They’ll be disappointed, think I’m a quitter, loser, incapable, etc.)
Trigger Warning

With these thoughts mostly unchallenged, I went into full-blown panic mode.  My self-doubt was high.  Anxiety and panic attacks were coming one after the other.  I became very dysregulated.  My sleep was disrupted. My appetite vanished.  I had intrusive thoughts and felt a looming sense of despair. I was also angry and frustrated to find myself in such an emotional state after feeling very well for a long period of time.

End Trigger Warning

While I have been practicing Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills for years and now teach them to others, the fact that I am human and sometimes stubborn (“willful” in the DBT world) means that things will not always go perfectly smoothly for me anymore than the next person.  Fortunately, an awareness of this allows me to reign things in when I do notice my heart soften toward shifting from being willful to willing.

I began to consider that the point of view that I was gripping onto so tightly and that was causing me so much distress might not be the best one for my health and well-being.  I checked in with my DBT Life Coach, Teresa Lynne, and her words to me were along the lines of:

“Debbie, even if you don’t get another day of education, you are loved, valuable, and you are giving and will continue to give so much.”

These words really helped me begin to make the shift.   The new thoughts I had after reflecting up on this and beginning to calm down nervous system and body (I’ll tell you how I did this) were:
  • Who am I doing this program for?
  • Is it necessary and worth the stress?
  • Why does it matter what other people think about my education decisions?
  • It’s my life to live, no one else’s. I don’t have to answer to anyone on this.
  • Even if people do judge me on it, what’s the big deal?

After two days of severe anxiety and feeling dysregulated, I started to feel better – but it wasn’t without a lot of effort.  I decided to attend a drop-in DBT Distress Tolerance group to talk about and acknowledge what worked as far as overcoming this episode.  I’ll now share with you what worked to help me feel better.

This is the worksheet that we fill out at the beginning of the group.  After that, each person goes around and discusses what they’ve written, allowing feedback from their peers as well as the DBT therapist.

Please note there is a minor Trigger Warning with regards to the content of this worksheet.

DBT Distress Tolerance Worksheet

As you can see, in the first column, we describe the stressful situation or event.  In my case, it was:
“Triggered by content in school and overwhelmed by workload.”

In the second column, we describe the reaction we have noticed to the stress.  Mine was:
“Severe Anxiety: GI (gastrointestinal symptoms), vomiting, loss of appetite, sleep problems, feeling distressed, muscle tension, dizzy/lightheaded, very irritable, scared, exhausted.”

In the third column, we write DBT Skills I Can Use (or have used):

I looked around the room as we presented, and I noticed that a lot of the newcomers to DBT had very long content in the first two columns and much less in the third column.  That’s only natural.  As you become more proficient in identifying which skills will help in a given situation and using them, that column will expand for you as well.

On mine, I wrote the following. These are all skills that I practiced prior to the group that helped me come out of the funk of dysregulation and back to a balanced emotional baseline. The two items marked with a “*” indicate that plan on doing these items but have not yet.
  • Pros & Cons Worksheet
    • for continuing this semester (I ended up dropping)
    • for continuing this particular master’s program (perhaps there’s a program with a better fit.)*
    • for getting a master’s degree at all*
  • Self-Soothing Through the Senses
    • Long, hot, aroma therapeutic shower (scented body wash, shampoo, body butter)
    • Upper Body Massage
    • Energy work
  • Engaging Wise Mind
    • Fact checking/challenging thoughts
  • Comparisons
    • Thinking about how I can get through episodes like this with more resilience and a quicker turn around time than years ago
  • Thoughts
    • Pushing away intrusive thoughts
    • Prayer
    • Self-Encouragement (cheerleading statements)
  • Mindfulness
    • Doing one thing at a time
    • Listening to guided meditation and hypnosis CDs
    • Radical acceptance of symptoms (heart rate fast, appetite, etc.)
  • Activities
    • Distracted by getting engaged in helping my yoga teacher with a project
  • PLEASE skills
    • Took medication
    • Ate even when I didn’t feel like it
    • Stayed hydrated
    • Went to yoga

Those of us who are emotionally sensitive often need to work harder and more diligently than those who are not when it comes to returning to a healthy, comfortable, balanced state of being after an upset.  As you can see, it took the practice of a number of skills to successfully convince my nervous system that I was not in danger and that it could relax.

Please be kind and compassionate to yourself when you find you are in a state of emotional dysregulation.  Begin treating yourself with the same tenderness that you would a loved one.

Soothe your nerves through activities that calm your senses and bring you a greater sense of well-being.

Know that it’s worth the time and effort.  Know that you are not alone.  Know that this, too, shall pass.

Thanks for reading.
More Soon.


  1. I admire you for getting through a difficult time using the skills you have learned. I know how hard it is and it is still a long way for me to get a handle on my negative thoughts but you are not simply getting through a tough time but also helping others by sharing your experiences and thoughts. Thank you for sharing your experiences, and look forward to another one. :)

    1. Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging comment, Angel! ♥

  2. Thank you Debbie -you help me more than you even know ♥

    1. I'm so glad to hear that Vikki. Thank you for leaving this kind comment. ♥



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