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A young girl lays on her bed journaling about using the IMPROVE DBT skill to manage big feelings.

The IMPROVE DBT Skill Can Help You Manage Big Feelings

6 min.

It stands for “imagery, meaning, prayer, relaxation, one thing in the moment, vacation, and encouragement” and can help you calm down when you have big feelings.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

October 24, 2023


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Table of Contents

What is the IMPROVE the moment DBT skill?

“IMPROVE,” also known as “IMPROVE the moment,” is a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skill that helps people manage distressing emotions and situations in real time. Research has shown that DBT is an effective form of therapy for people with a range of mental health conditions. Studies have found that it can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder, and improve overall quality of life.

Each letter of the IMPROVE skill refers to a different technique or strategy that can be used to improve one’s emotional state when feeling overwhelmed or distressed: imagery, meaning, prayer, relaxation, one thing in the moment, vacation, and encouragement. Here’s a brief overview of what each part of the IMPROVE skill stands for:


Using your imagination to visualize a peaceful or comforting place can help you escape from distressing emotions temporarily. This can provide a mental break from the intensity of the moment.


Finding meaning in a difficult situation can help you cope with it more effectively. Reflecting on why you’re experiencing the emotion and how it relates to your values and goals can be helpful.


For people who are religious or spiritual, prayer can be a source of comfort and connection during times of distress. It involves seeking support or guidance from a higher power. For those who are not religious or spiritual, the prayer aspect of IMPROVE can be viewed as a moment of self-reflection, intention-setting, or self-compassion – taking a brief pause to acknowledge and address your emotions and challenges in a way that aligns with your personal beliefs and values.

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Engaging in relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation, can help reduce physical tension and calm the nervous system.

One thing in the moment

Focusing your attention on one thing in the present moment can help distract you from distressing thoughts and emotions. It’s a mindfulness technique that encourages you to fully engage with your current surroundings or a specific activity.


This does not necessarily mean taking a physical vacation but rather mentally stepping away from the distressing situation. You can mentally “go on vacation” by engaging in activities or thoughts that give you a break from the distress.


Providing yourself with self-encouragement and positive self-talk can boost your confidence and resilience when facing difficult emotions or situations.

What is the IMPROVE the moment DBT skill used for?

As mentioned, the IMPROVE the moment DBT skill helps people effectively manage and cope with distressing emotions, particularly when those emotions become overwhelming. It provides people with strategies and techniques to improve their emotional state and reduce emotional suffering. IMPROVE is one of the many skills taught in DBT to help people regulate their emotions, tolerate distress, and improve their overall emotional well-being—all of which are core tenets of DBT therapy.

IMPROVE can be applied in various situations and is especially helpful when people are experiencing intense emotions, impulsivity, or crises. It is a valuable tool in helping people build emotional resilience and navigate difficult moments in their lives. Here’s a more detailed explanation of what IMPROVE the moment is used for:

Distress tolerance

IMPROVE is part of the distress tolerance skills module of DBT. These skills are designed to help people tolerate distress without resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as self-harm, substance abuse, or impulsive behaviors. Distress tolerance is a core concept in DBT and is especially important for people who struggle with overwhelming emotions and impulsive behaviors. When people are in distress, they may be more prone to impulsive and harmful actions. IMPROVE provides alternatives to impulsive behaviors and promotes healthier coping strategies.

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Interpersonal effectiveness

In addition to distress tolerance, DBT also includes modules on interpersonal effectiveness. These skills focus on improving communication, assertiveness, and the ability to maintain healthy relationships. Interpersonal effectiveness skills are essential for managing relationships effectively, setting boundaries, and achieving one’s goals in interactions with others.

Crisis management

IMPROVE can be particularly useful during times of crisis when emotions are at their peak. It offers practical tools to de-escalate intense emotions and create a sense of emotional stability.

Emotional regulation

It assists in regulating emotions by providing people with immediate and practical ways to change their emotional state when they’re feeling overwhelmed or out of control.

Mindfulness and grounding. Some components of IMPROVE, like “one thing in the moment” and “vacation,” encourage mindfulness and grounding techniques. These help people stay present and reduce rumination on distressing thoughts.


IMPROVE encourages self-care and self-compassion. By engaging in the techniques, people can take steps to care for themselves and reduce emotional suffering.

How to use the IMPROVE the moment DBT skill

Here’s an example of how someone might use the IMPROVE the moment skill in a distressing situation:

Sarah is feeling extremely anxious and overwhelmed because she has to give a presentation at work in front of a large audience, and she’s afraid of public speaking. She’s on the verge of a panic attack and needs to calm herself down quickly. 


Sarah takes a deep breath and closes her eyes for a moment. She imagines herself in a serene garden with colorful flowers and a gentle breeze. This mental imagery helps her briefly escape from the anxiety-provoking thoughts about the presentation.


Sarah reminds herself of the importance of the presentation and how it aligns with her career goals. She thinks about how conquering her fear of public speaking can lead to professional growth and opportunities. 


Sarah is not particularly religious, but she quietly says a short, calming prayer to herself, asking for the strength and composure to get through the presentation. 


She starts to practice deep breathing exercises, inhaling slowly for a count of four, holding for four, and exhaling for four. This deep breathing helps her reduce physical tension and feel more relaxed.

One thing in the moment

Sarah takes a moment to ground herself in the present. She focuses on the feel of her feet on the floor and the sensation of her breath as it goes in and out. This brings her attention away from her anxious thoughts. 


Sarah briefly thinks about a fun vacation she went on last year, recalling the sights, sounds, and experiences. This mental “vacation” provides a momentary distraction from her anxiety. 


Sarah tells herself, “I can do this. I’ve prepared well, and I have valuable information to share. I am capable and confident.” She reinforces her self-confidence through positive self-talk.

By using the IMPROVE the moment skill in this scenario, Sarah is able to manage her distress, reduce her anxiety, and gain the composure she needs to give her presentation effectively. These techniques help her stay grounded in the moment and shift her focus away from the overwhelming fear of public speaking.

A teenager sits in her moms room and tells her about using the DBT skill IMPROVE to help her manage big feelings.

DBT skills with Charlie Health

If you think dialectical behavior therapy might be a useful tool for yourself or a loved one, Charlie Health is here to help. 

At our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), expert clinicians use evidence-based therapies, including DBT, to support young people with complex mental health needs and their families. Treatment consists of group sessions (including DBT skills groups), individual counseling, and family therapy to offer holistic support for long-term healing. 

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