Managing emotions with an opposite action

Emotional woman.
Acting on strong emotions can make a bad situation worse.

Sometimes, our emotions cause us to do things that aren’t good for us. However, you don’t have to be a prisoner to your emotions. Instead of acting on them, you can choose to do an opposite action – that is, do the opposite of what your emotions are telling you to do.


All of us can recall times where strong emotions resulted in us making choices that made a bad situation worse – for example, lashing out when you’re angry, staying in bed late and avoiding friends when you’re down or lonely, and so on.


Emotion-driven behaviour is problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, it can lead to bad outcomes. Lashing out at someone rarely resolves a problem and usually makes it worse. Similarly, nothing good comes out of avoiding contact with people when you’re sad and lonely.


Secondly, acting on your emotions can intensify your original feelings. Depression, for example, is often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. You may act on these feelings by withdrawing from people and activities and by beating yourself up. Unfortunately, these behaviours only add to that sense of worthlessness and hopelessness. Instead of getting relief from negative emotions, you become more consumed by them.


One way of breaking this vicious cycle is by using a DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy) technique called opposite action. Instead of acting on your emotional urges, you choose a behaviour that is the opposite of what they are telling you to do.



Remote control.
Mindlessly flipping through TV channels makes us feel worse, not better.

For example, let’s say you’re down because you recently broke up with your partner and have heard they’re now in a relationship with someone else. Sad and upset, you want to stay at home and shut yourself off from friends and acquaintances. You don’t want to venture outside, where reminders of your ex and the time you spent together are everywhere.


Your emotions are prompting you to withdraw. An opposite action would be to go outside, to meet up with friends, to reach out to people.


Another example. Say you’re down and feeling tired and lethargic. You’ve spent hours on the couch, mindlessly flipping through TV channels, eating junk food. You know this isn’t good for you, but it seems like you can’t find the energy to do anything else.


An opposite action here would be to go for a short walk or do a few small jobs, such as washing the dishes or hoovering or tidying up. Your inner voice might say, “I just don’t feel like it”, but you don’t have to heed this voice. All of us can think of times when we didn’t feel like doing things, only to feel much better after we did them. Resist the urge to do nothing; you will feel better when you are up and about.


When you’re anxious or fearful about something, your natural urge will be to avoid. An opposite action would be do approach what you fear and do what you’ve been avoiding.


Similarly, if your anxiety is causing you to procrastinate about something – for example, doing a dreaded work or college assignment – an obvious opposite action would be to just get stuck in. Again, you will feel better when you do.


With anger, your instinctive urge may be to lash out, to criticise, to shout, to adopt an attitude of non-acceptance (“This shouldn’t be happening!”). An opposite action would be to take a few deep breaths, to talk slowly and calmly, to accept the reality of the situation even if you don’t agree with it (“I don’t like this, but it’s happened. I don’t want to make a bad situation worse. I can choose to respond, not react”).


Guilt, self-criticism, feelings of inadequacy – doing an opposite action to how you feel can help you manage various other negative emotions.


Importantly, opposite action is not about ignoring or denying or pushing away your emotions; it is about regulating them. The emotions you feel at any given time may be perfectly valid and understandable, but that doesn’t mean you should let them dictate your behaviour.


You can acknowledge your emotions without acting on them. The opposite action technique helps create some space between your feelings and actions, allowing you to tame strong emotions and encourage new, more positive ones.


(First published in Southern Star on 25/11/2021)