Two DBT Techniques That Can Save Your Life

(Content warning: mentions of self-harm, suicide, and eating disorders.)

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, and everything I have to say in this post comes from my personal experience and knowledge from therapy. If you are struggling with mental illness, please consult a professional.

For much of my life, I struggled with bulimia and other self-destructive behaviors. I recently started seeing a therapist who has been working with me to implement DBT skills into my life. DBT, or Dialectal Behavior Therapy, involves learning new ways to help regulate emotions. It can be life-saving for people, like myself, whose difficulty processing negative emotions leads them to self-harming behavior.

My Favorite DBT Techniques

The two techniques that have helped me the most are “urge surfing” and activating the diving response. Below I will cover when to use each skill, why it works, and how to implement it step by step.

When is it Useful?

Urge surfing is great whenever you have the urge to do something you want to prevent – some examples are eating disorder behaviors, self-harm, and suicidal behaviors – and feel you are able to resist it for any length of time.

Activating your diving response is useful when you are experiencing an extreme emotion and need an immediate release.

How Does it Work?

The simplest way to explain urge surfing is when you feel an urge to do something, just wait to act on it – view it as a wave you are riding. Emotional urges like the ones mentioned above are known to peak within 20-30 minutes of developing (the crest of the wave), and after that will subside – regardless of whether you have gone through with the urge or not. This is a pretty powerful fact to know – no matter how desperate your urge feels, it will disappear in a matter of minutes even if you do not act on it. Of course it may be difficult to “urge surf” for the entire duration of the urge to start with, but you can always start at smaller intervals of time and work your way up. When I was actively purging, my therapist told me to start by waiting 1 minute to purge when an urge hit, then moving up to 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and so on until I was able to consistently ride out the duration of the urge. This technique becomes more useful and effective the more you practice it. However, if you are desperate for a more immediate tactic, see below.

Human anatomy has provided us a physical way to stop overpowering emotions in their tracks – this is known as the diving reflex. We are able to trigger our parasympathetic nervous system to take over and “reset” our emotionally overwhelmed nervous system – essentially slowing down or stopping processes that aren’t vital for survival. An easy way to activate this reflex is to fill a large bowl with ice water, bend over to submerge your face in it, and hold your breath there as long as you can. This will result in a decreased heart rate and decreased blood flow to limbs in order to bring adequate oxygen to the most important parts of the body. The process can be repeated if need be, but often the unpleasant emotions will have subsided within 30 seconds to 1 minute as a result of the physiological response to the stimuli. It should be noted that because of this technique’s effect on heart rate, anyone with heart problems should consult a doctor before attempting it.

A Simple Guide to Using Each Skill

Urge Surfing:

  1. Set a goal to resist your urge for as long as you can.
  2. The next time you feel it coming on, visualize yourself riding it out like a wave, knowing eventually it will peak and then subside.
  3. If you make it long enough for the urge to fade, congratulations! You can use this technique each time you feel an urge coming on.
  4. If not, that’s okay too! The key to urge surfing is practice. However long you lasted this time, make it a goal to ride your urge for 1-5 minutes longer the next time you feel it coming on. Eventually you will be able to surf the entire duration of your urge without giving in to it.

Activating the Diving Response:

  1. If you are experiencing an intensely unpleasant emotion, fill a large bowl with icy water (the colder the better) and place it on a surface low enough for you to lean over.
  2. Bend over (this will enhance the response) and submerge your face in the water, ensuring that the water is touching all areas of the face.
  3. Hold your breath for as long as possible, aiming for 30 seconds.
  4. You should feel much calmer when coming out of the water.
  5. If not, wait a few minutes and repeat.
  6. Bonus college tip: if you don’t have access to ice, a bowl, etc., try taking a very brief icy-cold shower and putting your face directly under the shower head.


I hope you find these techniques as useful to your mental health as they have been to mine. DBT provides an excellent skillset for dealing with some of life’s challenges, and these have saved me from engaging in self-destructive behaviors on numerous occasions.

– S


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