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How to Create a 'Buffer zone' Between Emotions and Actions

[TW This post mentions self-harm]

If you have BPD like me, then you may struggle with urges connected to strong emotions. For example, when I feel ashamed I might get the urge to hurt myself or if I'm sad then I might have the urge to cancel all plans and stay in bed crying. Similarly, if someone doesn't reply to my messages, then the anxiety I feel can give me the urge to send more texts to see if I did something to upset them.

If you experience intense emotions and you haven't learnt safe ways of managing them, then you may get strong urges connected to your intense feelings. For many people, the stronger the emotion, then the stronger the urge is associated with the emotion. In many ways, it is only natural that a strong emotion could lead to a strong urge after all. Think of two people who are scared of spiders. The one with the mild fear might move slowly away from the spider, whereas the one with the strong fear will most likely sprint away.

Many people with BPD experience intense emotions multiple times a day and can move quickly between suicidal despair and ecstatic joy.

When strong urges are attached to these emotions, for example, the urge to self-harm followed by the urge to do something fun, life can become difficult to manage. It can feel really confusing to be crying and wanting to hurt yourself, followed by gleefully dancing around your living room.

picture of a hand holding a mobile phone

Furthermore, when a person with intense emotions has a strong urge and then acts on the urge, more intense emotions can follow. For example, if someone feels anxious that their partner didn't reply to their message within ten minutes and they then call three times and get no answer, the anxiety will become even stronger. If they then send a number of texts saying 'I knew you didn't love me', 'I am a terrible girlfriend' and 'everyone always hates me in the end', then an emotional storm of sadness, anxiety and anger may follow. Sadness for thinking they are unlovable, anxiety about being abandoned and anger for being rejected.

If the partner then replies saying they were on the phone to their manager and couldn't reply, then relief, joy, shame, guilt and then more anxiety can follow. Relief and joy that abandonment didn't come at this time, shame for not being able to cope better with the anxiety, guilt for wanting a text when the partner was in fact busy with their boss and subsequent anxiety about being abandoned next time.


I could give numerous examples of how emotions and urges can cause further emotional dysregulation and suffering. Yet, I probably don't need to because most people with BPD will understand what I mean about emotions spiralling more out of control due to acting on them. In the past, and still sometimes today, when my emotions are strong, the last thing I want to do is not act on them.

Often, it just feels wrong not to act on a strong emotion. It is like the emotion is screaming at me to 'do something'.

As you will know if you are trying not to act on your emotions, it is extremely difficult. When anxious, your heart will be racing so you can do whatever it takes to protect yourself; when sad, your body will have slowed down for inaction; when in love you will do anything to see the person you adore. It is extremely hard to not do what every fibre of your body and mind is convincing you to do.

text reads: It can be very scary not to act on an urge as doing so can feel threatening. the background is white

It can be very scary to not act on the urge as it may make you feel under threat. On the flip side however, acting on an emotion can have some painful consequences too. Imagine being in love with someone who you know is not helpful for you, feeling like you cannot live without seeing this person and yet knowing in order to feel better in the long term you cannot see the person now. If you have ever had a break up with someone in this manner, you will know just how hard it is to stay away when separation feels completely unnatural.

However, you may know that the short term pain of not acting on an emotion can have a huge pay off in the long term of greater emotional stability and happiness.


There is so much more I could write about why we have emotions, how they can be come dysregulated, associated thought processes and so on. However what I want to give you today is some techniques you could try for creating a 'buffer zone' between intense emotions and strong urges. I am not saying that these tips will work for you first time, or even that they will work at all. They are something which I had to practice and try out with trial and error, but I hope they can help you get closer to a calmer life.

1. Talk to yourself using this script

I am feeling very _______ right now.

The emotion of ________ is giving me the urge to _________ right now.

I could act on the urge right now or I could do ______ instead. I could also wait ___ minutes to see if I still want to do _________.

I recommend gently giving this a go. At the first attempt, you may not manage it or you may only be able to do the first line. This is a a great start however, as you can slowly build up over days or weeks until you can manage more of the script. You could make the script shorter or add in more detail, it's up to you.

image of a hand writing with a coffee and paper
You could try writing different scripts for times of distress

Although you may still act on the urge, the script could slowly show you that there are other options for acting on your urge. I have also used helplines (such as Samaritans) and spoken a version of this aloud whilst getting encouragement.

2. safe place imagery

This is not for everyone, but if you have a vivid imagination or a flair for design, this one could be for you. Have a think to see if there is a place, fictional or real, that makes you feel safe and calm. I encourage people to get creative when thinking of a place. Whilst beach or garden are fine, how about space ship, elephant sanctuary, ancient palace, retro ice cream parlour or mermaid grotto?

The more inventive the better as you have the chance to make it your own.

Make a Pinterest board that represents your place, find ambient sound recordings on YouTube, draw it, write about it, list what you can see/hear/smell/taste/touch here. Practice thinking about the place when you feel calm so that when you feel more distressed, you can take a mental holiday there. This is a mental space that you can retreat to in times of painful emotions and urges until you feel able to cope better.

photo of lily pads on a pond
One of my safe places is a Japanese ornamental garden and tea house!

3. use the STOP skill

One of my most used DBT skills is the STOP skill, as described in my video below.


I would love to know what you think about the tips I have shared and if you have any of your own...

Useful book about DBT with lots of detail: DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets by Marsha M. Linehan. Guilford Press; 2nd edition (9 Dec. 2014).


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