A teen learns opposite action, a DBT skill for overwhelming emotions.

Opposite Action: A DBT Skill for Overwhelming Emotions

4 min.

Opposite action is a skill used in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to help people manage their emotions.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

April 1, 2024


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Table of Contents

Opposite action is a skill used in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to help people manage their emotions and cope more effectively with distressing situations. Emotions often lead to specific actions or behaviors, but sometimes, they can intensify a feeling rather than alleviate it. Opposite action involves deliberately choosing to act opposite to the feeling one is having to reduce the intensity of that emotion. 

For example, when someone is feeling very anxious and has the urge to avoid a situation, the opposite action would be to confront it directly by participating in the activity despite their discomfort. Or, if someone with depression feels sad and has the urge to isolate themselves, the opposite action skill would be to seek out social interaction. Below, we will delve more into the opposite action skill, including how it works, its benefits, and ways to practice it.

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How does opposite action work?

The underlying theory of opposite action is that emotions are paired with specific action urges, which can either amplify or reduce the emotion based on the response chosen. By acting opposite to the emotion-driven urge, the intensity of the emotion can decrease over time, giving people greater emotional regulation. In essence, opposite action disrupts the automatic cycle of emotion-action that can lead to problematic behaviors and emotional states. 

Benefits of using opposite action techniques

Using opposite action techniques can offer numerous benefits, especially in emotion regulation (like many other DBT skills). Here are some of the benefits of using opposite action techniques:

Improved emotional regulation

Opposite action can help people gain more control over their emotions by choosing actions that counteract the initial, often overwhelming, emotional impulse. This leads to improved emotion regulation skills over time.

Enhanced coping strategies

Learning and practicing opposite action equips people with a powerful coping strategy that can be used in various situations, helping them to deal with stress, anxiety, and other challenging emotions more effectively.

Strengthened relationships

By managing emotions more effectively and increasing distress tolerance through opposite actions, people can respond in healthier ways to others, improving communication and strengthening relationships.

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Promotion of behavioral flexibility

Opposite action teaches behavioral flexibility, allowing people to choose their actions deliberately rather than reacting impulsively based on their emotional state. This flexibility is crucial for effective problem-solving and adapting to new situations.

Empowerment and self-efficacy

Successfully using opposite action can lead to a sense of empowerment and increased self-efficacy, as people realize that they can control their actions and, by extension, their emotional responses.

How do you practice opposite action in DBT?

Practicing opposite action involves steps designed to help you effectively manage difficult emotions by doing the opposite of what your current emotion urges you to do. Here’s how to practice opposite action within a DBT framework. Keep in mind that using the opposite action skill with the support of a licensed therapist is more likely to make it effective: 

1. Identify the emotion

Recognize and name the emotion you are experiencing. This could be anger, sadness, fear, shame, etc. Assess the intensity of the overwhelming emotion on a scale from 0 to 100.

2. Check the facts

Examine the facts of the situation to determine if your emotion matches the situation. This step helps determine if the emotion is justified or if there is an exaggeration in response.

3. Decide on the opposite action

If your emotional response does not fit the facts or is unhelpful, engage in the opposite action. Determine what actions are usually driven by this emotion. For instance, fear might drive you to avoid something, whereas sadness might drive you to withdraw.

4. Act opposite

Engage in actions opposite to what you would typically do under the influence of that emotion.

  • Fear: If you’re afraid but the situation is not actually harmful, approach rather than avoid.
  • Sadness: Instead of isolating, engage in activities that improve your mood or connect with others.
  • Anger: If angry but the situation doesn’t warrant a hostile response, try to gently avoid the situation or person or engage in calming activities.
  • Shame: If you feel shame about something that isn’t morally wrong or doesn’t reflect on your character, do things that increase your sense of self-worth or share your experience with others.

5. Commit and act fully

Fully commit to the opposite action. This means engaging with the action with your whole body and mind rather than half-heartedly. The effectiveness of the opposite action technique increases with the level of commitment and the completeness with which you engage in the action.

6. Observe the outcome

Notice changes in your emotional state, including positive emotions, after engaging in the opposite action. Reflect on any shifts in the intensity or perspective of your negative emotion in the situation.

7. Practice regularly

Like any DBT skill, regular practice enhances its effectiveness. Use a diary or journal to track your experiences, emotions, and outcomes. This can help you refine your approach over time.

A young woman practices opposite action with a friend.

Mental health support at Charlie Health

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