Top 10 DBT Skills for Overcoming Alexithymia & Depression (#8 is my Favorite right now!)

Please welcome Rachel Cooper and her very first guest blog piece at Healing From BPD! 
From Rachel:
I often get asked what skills I have learned during my time in recovery from depression, and how I cope on a day-to-day basis.
TW - Trigger Warning
Though I have been in psychotherapy since before I was an adolescent, it was only in the last 2 years that I learned behavioral tools to help me manage my often overwhelming emotions and my impulses to self-harm.
End Trigger Warning
I first learned about the idea of coping skills during a stint in long-term residential treatment. The particular treatment center I attended placed great emphasis on teaching individuals in early recovery to learn and utilize DBT skills as a means of building a foundation of coping. One of the highlights of learning DBT in this setting was during the Summer Olympics, when the therapist brought in examples of skills that Olympic level athletes could and did use in their training and performance.
Learning that Olympians utilize DBT skills made me feel much more normal about utilizing the skills, and made me excited at the prospect of having something in common with these highly successful people.
Over the course of 6 months, I sat through each module at least twice and eventually found myself teaching my peers about the concepts and skills I liked the most, particularly Wise Mind and Radical Acceptance. But even before I was able to teach the skills, there were some I found more resonant then others.  Further participation in DBT groups closer to home bolstered my ability to put the skills into practice on good days and on days that I struggled.  I continue to use these skills daily as a means of building and preserving my resilience and also empowering myself to live a life that’s meaningful and worthwhile.
Here are just a few of my favorite skills and some examples of how I effectively incorporate them into my life:
When I first learned Mindfulness, I really struggled because I couldn’t rein in my racing thoughts during meditation.  When I finally recognized that employing mindfulness didn’t require 30 minutes of sitting still, I was relieved. During treatment, I would often go to the beach and focus on the sight of the waves crashing over and over and the sound of the water and the birds. These brief periods of mindfulness focused my attention in a way that made me better able to do so when I wasn’t in the presence of such beauty. 

2. Observe, Describe, Participate:
Learning to observe, describe and participate in experiences has been very helpful. My ability to be present in an experience has enabled me to move away from the racing anxious thoughts I would experience and remain grounded and more open to being in the situation. These skills have proven particularly helpful in the context of my current psychotherapy, whereby I don’t feel afraid of walking into a session because of fear of the unknown. Rather, I can be a part of the conversation in a deliberate and meaningful way – which is the way I wish to engage in my therapy.
The Emotion Regulation skills have provided me with a new vocabulary to identify and understand my emotions.  Once diagnosed as having alexithymia, an inability to identify and describe my emotions, I am now capable of recognizing and analyzing my emotions by understanding my verbal, non-verbal and physical body cues in response to a situation. I identify myself as being angry when I feel my blood boiling in response to a perceived or real injustice, and I understand fear when my heartbeat suddenly increases substantially.
My ability to recognize positive emotions such as joy and pride has also become sharpened. My participation in DBT Path’s online Emotion Regulation courses have made me more capable of employing problem solving skills when I experience negative emotions. Utilizing opposite action to move away from anger, fear or sadness and toward contentment, pride and joy has come from having private dance parties in my bathroom, watching videos of baby sloths on YouTube, and reading inspiring stories of other people in recovery who utilize coping skills regularly.
4. PLEASE MasterY:
The PLEASE MasterY skills have also been really useful. In particular, eating regular, balanced meals and getting sufficient (but not too much) sleep makes me feel better equipped to handle the emotions that I experience and lessens the emotional dysregulation that does occur from time to time.

While not my favorite set of skills, the Interpersonal Effectiveness skills have been useful in both my working and personal life. Identifying whether I want to achieve my objective, maintain the interpersonal relationship, or preserve my self-respect has been crucial to being effective in every relationship I find myself in.

6. GIVE:

When dealing with my work clients, I use GIVE skills all the time, remembering to be gentle, interested and validating while using an easy manner to communicate. My clients seem to appreciate this style of communication – and they don’t even know it’s a DBT skill!


I’ve also used DEARMAN many times. Taking the time to outline how I am going to describe, express, assert and reinforce my position while being mindful, appearing confident and negotiating for my needs has enabled me to hone the skill in an assertive, rather than an aggressive way, which has served me time and again.
Finally, there’s the Distress Tolerance skills that seem to be present nearly everyday. When I feel anxious, fearful, sad, angry or otherwise dysregulated, distracting myself from the acute feelings helps temper the situation, even if only temporarily.

My iPhone has served as a great source of distraction – I keep pictures of my loved ones, my cat, sunsets, and the beach in my photo collection. I play Words with Friends when I need a break from my emotions, and I turn to Candy Crush when my feelings are so overwhelming that I feel like I’m engulfed. When I’m sad I watch Parks & Recreation, and Amy Poehler cheers me up in 22 minutes.

9. Self-Soothing
I also do a lot of self-soothing. I like to light candles in my bedroom, eat homemade soup, chew cinnamon gum and listen to music that makes me feel good. I keep emergency playlists on my iPod for when I’m sad, angry and scared, and I listen to them when needed. I also have favorite pants and shirts that make me feel comfortable in my own skin, especially on those days when it doesn’t feel amazing to be me.
The IMPROVE skills have also been really helpful. Beach imagery settles me nearly every time. Blogging and tweeting about mental health, recovery and coping brings me meaning and simultaneously makes me feel like I’m contributing to a community in a meaningful way. I have post-it notes posted on my mirrors with cheerleading statements and I have, on many occasions, had a conversation with my higher power.
Bonus: Radical Acceptance:
Radical acceptance is by far my favorite skill, and the skill that I most frequently teach to others. Learning to let go of my need to fight against the situation I find myself in and instead embrace it with open arms means that I can sit in traffic without becoming enraged. I can now accept disappointing news without having my day ruined and most importantly, I can maintain a sense of okay-ness in the face of trial, tribulation and adversity.

Being in recovery from depression is not easy. There are some days that I wish would end because the emotions I experience are so overwhelming.  Two years ago, experiencing emotion dysregulation meant that I couldn’t function in the world and that I needed help to keep myself safe. Now, because of the DBT skills I’ve learned, not only am I able to survive in the world, but I’m able to thrive and one day at a time, I continue to build a life that’s worth living.
Thanks for reading,
Rachel Cooper is a passionate advocate for mental health. She has participated in discussions with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and at the University of Toronto. In recovery from depression, Rachel strives to live a meaningful and balanced life. She believes that everyone is capable of learning and using coping skills to create a life worth living.   Rachel tweets @rachbcooper.


  1. Welcome Rachel!
    I found a lot of hope and encouragement in your post. I have BPD,and clinical depression for years. I am on meds and been in therapy on and off for years. I still struggle so much with depression daily. I am presently reading Debbies book, and recently signed up for DBT on line. I am beginning to have some hope that I can feel better, thank you and continued best wishes on your recovery.

  2. Hi there! Thanks so much for reading the blog and thanks for your courage to comment! DBT has been the key to all of the progress I've made. If I can make one suggestion, it's to be gentle with yourself as you're learning!

    Rachel Cooper

  3. The more I find out about DBT, the more I believe it is going to help me. I'm going to have to fight for it though, as have been told that I am less deserving as I manage to go to work every day (seriously)! Thanks so much for your blog, Rachel, it's really clarified a few things :)


  4. Hi Sofia,
    I believe DBT can be helpful to everyone, regardless of problem or symptoms. The skills at the core of DBT are tools for living - and I think everyone can use more of those!
    Remember, you are deserving of the help that you need so that you can live your best life!




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