How to IMPROVE the Moment – Using DBT Skills to Manage Challenging Situations

How to handle stressful situations

How to IMPROVE the Moment – Using DBT Skills to Manage Challenging Situations

Many of us deal with stress and frustration multiple times each day. From delays on the subway to friendship or family drama, these events can interfere with your mood and create more emotional dysregulation if they are pushed away or ignored. During these times, the IMPROVE skill, developed by Marsha Linehan, can be used to reduce the intensity of their emotions in any kind of situation and feel more in control of their lives.

Stress reliefThe IMPROVE skill helps you tolerate distress or frustration without making it worse, and ideally, aims to make it better. It’s important to use when you can’t do anything about the crisis at hand, but might feel helpless, hurt or frustrated because you can’t solve the problem or change the situation. For many people, life itself feels like a constant crisis, so using this skill to get through the feeling and gain confidence is important.

You may be thinking, “I’ve got 200 things that stress me out right now, how can this skill help me?” First let’s get clear on what constitutes a crisis. A crisis is a highly stressful situation that is very intense and immediate. It is short term and time limited. When we are in a crisis, there’s intense pressure to resolve the problem RIGHT NOW. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. That’s when the IMPROVE skill is most valuable.

IMPROVE is comprised of seven distinct components. Not all seven will work for everyone, so choose the ones that resonate most.


Take yourself to a calm or positive place in your mind, somewhere you feel peaceful works best. You can also imagine the how you’d feel and look after getting through this crisis. Picture yourself managing frustration with ease, ask yourself “What if ____ (something good) happens? Could this work out better than I expected?”


Create or find meaning from the current challenge. Ask yourself “How can I grow from this?” or “What can I learn about myself or this stressor that can help me in the future? ”


Prayer can mean becoming aware of your connection to the universe. It doesn’t have to be talking to God; it can be asking for guidance from your Higher Power. If Prayer doesn’t sit well with you, replace it with “practice.” Practice refers to doing something in your mind that builds mastery. Practice, for example, can mean reciting the lyrics to a song you like or practicing a new route home in your mind. Practice helps you focus on how to increase your ability in one area that isn’t too challenging, so you can feel a sense of accomplishment.


RelaxationHow can you relax when you’re frustrated or furious? Changing how your body feels can change your brain chemistry and your mood. Listen to music that calms your mind down, practice progressive relaxation, listen to a guided meditation, or engage in abdominal breathing. These activities can soothe your nervous system so you can get through the frustrating experience safely.

One Thing in the Moment

(not the crisis at hand)

Can you balance on one foot, look for all the blue objects in the room, count how many steps you’re taking (as you are walking) or read one page of the paper? Doing one thing in the moment provides time for your brain to settle down. It helps you reduce the intensity of your feelings and stay focused on the present rather than the pain of the past or fear of the future.


Many find this tool useful when they are feeling overwhelmed about a deadline or want to escape a negative situation. Taking a short break to regroup can do wonders to your nervous system. This can include calling a friend, going for a walk or going into another room to for a few minutes. Taking a mini vacation away from the crisis can help you gain some perspective, which can help you manage the crisis more effectively.


Activate your inner cheerleader. Talk yourself through the crisis like you would if you were with a good friend. Some examples include:

I’ve already been through many other painful experiences, and I’ve survived.

This too shall pass

I’m strong enough to handle what’s happening to me right now.

How can you incorporate some of these skills into your life today? We may not be able to solve all the problems that come into our lives, but with IMPROVE we can manage frustrations confidently.


Authored by: Emily Roberts, MA, LPC