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What to Do If Emotions Make You Do or Say Things You Regret

These skills can help you to stay calm and avoid harming your relationships.

Key points

  • Dialectic behavior therapy tools can strengthen your ability to manage relational and emotional distress.
  • Strategies that help you distract, relax, and cope can enable you to calm down and avoid destructive reactions.
  • Pleasurable or purposeful activities can redirect negative emotional energy and give your difficult feelings a chance to settle down.
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Long ago, my friends used to call me a drama queen. I was proud of it. I come from a mixed ethnic, boisterous family. Whether we were shouting or laughing, it was always loud.

Sometime in my teens, I decided this was a powerful and fundamental part of who I was. If I was upset, you were going to know.

“If you don’t like receiving messages at my level of volume,” I would think to myself (and maybe even said out loud), “next time pack some earplugs. Or, better yet, just don’t make me mad.”

I don’t know when the shift happened, but I eventually realized that it wasn’t good for me, or my relationships, to let my loudest emotions run my show. Rather than being proud of being a “passionate” diva, I now pride myself on staying calm when tempers flare. My relationships are much healthier and more stable.

Now, I love working with patients who struggle to keep their emotions and reactions in check. I’ve met so many people who get easily overwhelmed, especially in romantic relationships. They long to prevent themselves from being too reactive, to stop saying or doing destructive things.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is best known for its ability to help people who suffer from diagnosed conditions such as borderline personality disorder. As my colleagues and I often discuss, however, it’s helpful for anyone who struggles with negative emotions and reactions.

I have a copy of The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook by Matthew McKay, Jeffrey Wood, and Jeffrey Brantley. It’s packed with useful suggestions and exercises that strengthen your ability to handle relational and emotional distress, “without losing control or acting destructively.”

One of the keys to managing emotions, and not saying or doing things you’ll regret, is to develop what they call distress tolerance skills. You can learn to “distract, relax and cope.” Amen to that.

Learn to catch and distract yourself, when you’re about to react. A classic example would be a woman who is anxiously attached to her partner (I hear this all the time). If he’s out with friends, she may feel compelled to text him constantly to check in. If he normally texts to say goodnight but doesn’t, she panics and starts calling repeatedly. That thing where you leave way too many messages and then can’t retrieve them. Oops.

This can play out in a workplace context as well. That thing where you react, write and then send (and can’t undo) that email rant.

If you find yourself in this type of distress, put some physical distance between yourself and your phone or laptop. Next, do something to distract yourself.

Some suggestions from The DBT Skills Workbook:

1. Use a pleasurable activity to distract yourself.

Call or text a friend. Exercise. Some people find that going for a run blows off a ton of steam and is great for calming reactive emotions. Cook your favorite meal—or better yet, cook it for yourself and someone else. Watch a funny movie. Go out and go somewhere (where you won’t get into any trouble, far from wherever that person is at).

It’s good to do pleasurable activities frequently, even when you’re not stressed. They help to increase your overall sense of wellbeing. The better you take care of yourself, and the more positive things you do that don’t depend on your relationship, the more likely you’ll be to be able to stay centered and in control of your reactions.

2. Distract yourself by paying attention to someone else.

When you feel your emotions rising, take your focus off yourself by asking someone in your world (a friend, parents, grandparents, siblings, etc.) if they need help.

Maybe you could call a friend who is having a rough time, and ask them how they’re doing. Really listen to them and focus on what’s going on in their life, not yours. That’s probably a better use of your conversational skills than talking endlessly about your own situation.

3. Distract your thoughts by focusing on something else.

I tend to ruminate, and often catch myself fixating on something that someone has done or said. As soon as I notice the mental rut, I say to myself “ruminating” and redirect my mind. I’ll usually focus on something that I’m doing (like washing the dishes), or something in my environment (such as sounds or nature).

The authors of the workbook suggest keeping a copy of your favorite prayer or saying with you. Keep it handy, somewhere. you can easily access it (e.g. in your wallet or your phone). When you feel distressed, look at it and read it to yourself. I have a wise reminder on my lock screen that has helped me many times.

4. Distract yourself with tasks and chores.

Leverage your negative emotional energy to do something constructive, something that leaves your world in better order. I love to channel upset feelings into neglected tasks that don’t require much concentration. When I’m emotional, I can’t focus, but I’m really, really good at cleaning a messy room. Wash the dishes, clean out a closet, wash your car, tackle that enormous pile of laundry.

These are just a handful of recommendations, from a long list of strategies. If you struggle with overwhelming emotions and reactions, I strongly recommend getting professional counseling or psychological support. This is particularly important if your reactions and behaviors are damaging relationships. In addition, you may find tools like the ones in the DBT Skills Workbook to be helpful.

© Copyright 2021 Dr. Susan Biali Haas, M.D.