Improve the Moment with Emotion Regulation Strategies

“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think.  Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” – A.A. Milne

We are always existing within the present moment, even if we are not tuned in to the richness and possibilities of the moment. When our present moment experience feels unpleasant or distressing, there is often an urge to avoid those things which are causing the discomfort or to react impulsively in attempts to relieve the discomfort. Unfortunately, avoidance and numbing oneself to discomfort does little to reduce suffering in any meaningful way. In fact, experiential avoidance often serves to create additional unnecessary suffering by creating even more problems to be dealt with once we decide to check back in to the present moment.

Emotion regulation skills can provide you with excellent tools to improve your emotional experience in the present moment in very real ways. While you cannot always control circumstances around you, the manner in which you will interpret and respond to circumstances of the present moment is entirely within your control. When you increase awareness of your emotional experience, it gradually becomes easier to mindfully respond to the present moment situation with greater clarity and intention.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Emotion Regulation

Dr. Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), created the mnemonic IMPROVE to provide clear emotion regulation skills to use in order to effectively improve the moment. The IMPROVE mnemonic serves as a reminder that each present moment is an opportunity to mindfully shift your emotional state from one of distress to one of peaceful calm. The effective use of emotion regulation skills increases your ability to experience a greater range of nuanced emotions and to express them in healthy ways.

Imagery (I):

Use your ability to mentally transport yourself to a safe internal place of calm, stability, and peace. Imagery involves mentally projecting images that evoke a desired emotional response. Use imagery that is meaningful and soothing to you. Allow yourself to fully tap in to and notice all of the sensory details of the scene that you are imagining. Allow yourself to imagine how you would feel different physically if you were present in this scene (e.g., relaxed or calm). Allow distracting or irrelevant thoughts to come and go as they please; don’t try to exert forceful control over the imagery. Rest in the richness of the imagery for as long as it takes for you to notice your emotional experience shifting to one of greater calm and peacefulness.

Meaning (M):

Creating meaning in life is a vital component of the foundation of sound mental and emotional health.  Emotions can sometimes create an intense state of self-absorption that threatens to take you away from your true values. Take the time to mindfully tap into what is most important to you in life and begin to shift your thoughts and actions to be in line with those values. Notice the ways in which even distressing emotions can be painful reminders of what you truly value. For example, if you are experiencing a painful emotional experience of humiliation or anxiety in front of other people, and you also place great importance on your relationships with others, that painful emotional experience may simply be an uncomfortable reminder of how much you value those relationships. Allow yourself to sit with the discomfort that you may be experiencing – even welcome it – and it will soon pass.

Prayer (P):

Marra (2004) explains that “prayer can be a powerful method of reducing self-absorption, increasing meaning, and offering strength and courage in the face of fear.” Even if you do not subscribe to any particular religious faith or do not wish to use the word “prayer,” you can still reap the benefits of prayer by using mindfulness to focus your awareness on your presence in the world. Take a moment to recognize the magnitude of the universe and your place in it. Meditation serves the same function as prayer as far as receiving the benefits of feeling a sense of connectedness to something greater than yourself and feeling centered in the present moment.

Relaxation (R):

Relaxation provides the benefit of reducing the bodily tension that is often associated with emotional distress. You have the power to actively shift your emotions at any point by intervening with your bodily sensations, thoughts or environmental context. While it is true that you do not have direct control over your emotional experience, you can indirectly shift your emotions by consciously adopting thoughts and physical activities that prompt an experience of calm and relaxation. Some examples of how you can use relaxation to shift out of an emotional state of distress include: progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, or stretching.

One Thing in the Moment (O):

When your mind is scattered or your physical movements are erratic and hurried, is it really surprising to you that your emotional state responds with a state of arousal or distress? Use the tool of mindfulness to deliberately focus on just one thing at a time. Disengage from fusion to your experience and instead simply notice your thoughts, sensations, and emotions as they occur. Allow them to be just as they are, with no attempts to control or change them. The paradox is that when you let go of the attempts to control your experience, it changes naturally – without force. Tune in to the present moment and focus on now… your breath in this moment, your thoughts in the moment, and your sensations in this moment. Let go of the past and the future and “check in” to this moment.

Vacation (V):

Researchers interested in stress have found that the positive stress-reducing benefits of a vacation last no longer than the vacation itself, but still no longer than two weeks. What this means is that even if you took a month-long vacation in some exotic location, the benefits from that vacation would still last approximately two weeks. Even if a two-week long vacation is unreasonable for you and your schedule, consider how you can reap the stress-reducing benefits of a vacation by taking a respite from your regular routine. Break out of your regular routine for an afternoon and make the time to take a relaxing walk outside, spend time with friends you haven’t seen in awhile, or take a long bubble bath. For this short “mini-vacation” to be most effective, allow yourself to truly tune in to the present moment and let go of your thoughts and worries about what you believe you “should” be doing. Be fully present to the pleasant sensations of your mini-vacation and allow yourself the gift of truly enjoying and savoring the moment.

Encouragement (E):

We all need encouragement to keep motivation levels high and to maintain focus on our chosen goals. This doesn’t mean that you need to have a cheering squad at your side, pushing you along. You can give powerful and motivating encouragement to yourself in this very moment. In order for encouragement to be effective, it must be genuine. It is quite likely that you will know when you are feeding yourself false affirmations and hope. Be honest with yourself and give yourself realistic, yet hopeful, encouragement in the present moment. For example, if you are experiencing persistent sadness or intrusive anxiety, give yourself authentic encouragement by reminding yourself that these emotions are temporary, that you have gotten through times like this in the past, and that this too will pass. Keep your focus on the positive consequences that lie ahead when you direct your thoughts and actions in healthy productive directions.

How do you typically deal with unpleasant emotions? Notice the ways that you have generally dealt with difficult emotions in the past, and take the time to really examine how effective your strategies have been. Try to avoid judging yourself as being “good” or “bad” at handling distressing emotions, and instead act as a mindful observer to your experience. If you notice that something is not working for you, allow yourself to let go of that habit. Set it down gently as you would a utensil on the table. Instead, pick up a tool that is more likely to lead to a positive, healthy, and value-based result. Which emotion regulation strategies of IMPROVE are you willing to employ the next time you are experiencing a distressing emotion?

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Marra, T. (2004). Depressed & anxious: The dialectical behavior therapy workbook for overcoming depression and anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Grand Velas – Yoga and Pilates by Grand Velas Resort / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. K aka The Dandelion Girl on February 20, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    I actually was thinking about this post the other morning… at around 3am (I actually came back here to grab the link to go back and link it to my blog post)… about how effective dealing with hard emotions (by running away from them) has worked in the past… which it really doesn’t… you can’t run away from yourself.

    • Laura on February 25, 2012 at 5:41 pm

      It is true that attempts to run away from emotions are quite often futile, since the origin of those emotions comes from within. When we spend a great deal of time denying, suppressing, or otherwise “ignoring” emotions, they generally tend to sit around and wait to be dealt with (or intensify in nature). I hope that this article on improving the moment with emotion regulation strategies was helpful to you. Thanks for your comment.

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