Using DBT Skills To Survive a Crisis

What is a crisis? A crisis is when you are in a highly stressful short-term situation and feel a sense of urgency to FIX IT NOW but can’t make it better right away. In times like these, the intensity of your distress can impact your ability to think clearly. You might feel paralyzed or have an urge to use harmful or destructive behaviors in an effort to relieve your  pain. Do you ever feel like you react automatically to a situation and then regret it later? This is a time for Crisis Survival Skills.

How to Survive a Crisis

There are several different types of coping skills you can use to survive a crisis. One way is to use distraction skills to get through a difficult moment without making it worse. One nifty tool set from Dialectical Behavior Therapy is called ACCEPTS. Here’s how it works:


When you are not in crisis, make a list of activities you enjoy to have them ready for when you are. The possibilities are really endless. It could include things like puzzles, dancing, word games, watching TV, listening to music, coloring in a coloring book etc…Then when you are in a crisis, you can call upon these pleasurable things to focus on instead of whatever is the source of your distress.


We often feel better and less hyper-focused on our own struggles when we are doing something nice for someone else. Volunteering, cleaning, sending an encouraging text to a friend, and donating things you no longer need or use are all ways we can contribute.


This “C” suggests we make comparisons to other people who have it worse than our current situation. The idea is that this builds some perspective.  Some people find this an effective way to distract themselves from their current distress, others don’t.  As with all the suggestions here, take what works and leave what doesn’t.


When we are in crisis, we are most often in “emotion mind”  – a headspace where our thoughts and behaviors are driven by our emotions.  At times like these, it can be helpful to create opposite emotions to release you from your current emotional tailspin.  Some ways of doing this might be watching funny YouTube videos or scary movies. You can also listen to music that creates an opposite mood of what you’re currently experiencing (i.e. dance music or a chill-out playlist).

Pushing Away:

You can temporarily push away a situation, if your emotional distress is too intense to work through it in the present.  Imagine boxing it up and putting it on a shelf to open later, or building an imaginary wall.  The idea behind Pushing Away is that you’re not going to be able to solve the problem anyway when you’re in your emotion mind, so rather than judge yourself for it, accept that there isn’t an immediate solution, and let yourself come back to it later once your emotional intensity has decreased.


You can also distract from your distressing thoughts by thinking about something else. You can count colors in a painting, in a room, or on the outfits of people walking down the street. Write down or repeat in your mind the lyrics to a song/poem/prayer you love.  Read a thrilling novel. When you’re focusing your thoughts on something else, it takes up the space of the thoughts that were causing emotional pain.


Activating your senses to change your focus from the current crisis to what you’re seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or feeling. Using sensations can be especially effective by changing your physiology to change your emotions. The physical sensation of splashing your face with cold water, holding ice in your hand, or putting a cold compress on your neck or forehead can all communicate “slow down” to your brain. Lighting scented candles, using scented lotion, and taking a warm shower are other ways to use sensations to distract.  Experiment and see what works!

Reach out to our team to learn more!