The ABC PLEASE skills from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are important for anyone who wants to improve their emotional health. The skills help set us up for success in managing our mood and emotions, and they pave the way for a happy life. See below for a summary of the skills and for lists of suggested pleasant and mastery activities.
The ABC PLEASE skills are two separate skill sets. The first (ABC) is about making sure that we regularly spend time doing things that will improve our mood. The second (PLEASE) set involves taking care of our bodies to reduce our vulnerability to emotion mind. Each skill is presented briefly here first, and then in more detail below.
Accumulate positive emotions: We all need positive events in our lives if we want to be happy. On a regular basis, make sure you’re engaging in enjoyable and valued activities. Some of these should contribute to your short term happiness, some to long term. Need help brainstorming? See the list below.
Build mastery: Mastery is the feeling we get when we succeed at something. We need this feeling regularly — children are naturally good at seeking it out, but as teens and adults we need to put in effort to make it happen. Below you’ll find some activity ideas that might work for you.
Cope ahead: We all face emotionally difficult situations. If you have one on the horizon, plan how you’ll respond when it happens. This needs to be a conscious and intentional process, often involving visualizing yourself in the situation. Plan out which strategies you’ll use.
Physical illness: Emotions are not only mental but physical experiences; we feel them in our bodies. If we don’t take care of our bodies by treating our illnesses, we will be poorly prepared to cope with emotionally difficult situations when they arise. Also, poor health can create its own emotionally difficult situations.
Balance eating: Eating too much or eating too little makes us more vulnerable to emotion mind. Be mindful of when, how, and how much you eat. Stay away from foods you know make you feel bad. Eat frequently enough so that hunger doesn’t trigger negative emotions. Make sure you’re eating the right amount to give yourself a chance to manage your emotions effectively.
Avoid mood-altering substances: Drugs and alcohol can impair our ability to cope with difficult situations and difficult emotions. They do this in multiple ways, so it’s smart to reduce or eliminate your use of mood-altering drugs and alcohol. This includes legal and illegal drugs, natural and synthetic.
Balance Sleep: None of us are at our emotional best when we don’t have adequate sleep. For most people, seven to nine hours are necessary. Try to have a regular wake time each day that doesn’t vary too widely. It can be tempting to assume you can get by on insufficient sleep — but sooner or later, it catches up with you.
Get exercise: Emotions are not only mental but physical experiences. If we don’t take care of our bodies, we will be poorly prepared to cope with emotionally difficult situations when they arise. Exercise has physical effects on the body and on the brain that help us regulate mood; take advantage of these effects by being physically active on a regular basis.
Further Information on the ABC PLEASE Skills
Read on for a skill-by-skill breakdown of the ABC PLEASE skills.
Accumulate Positive Emotions:
Positive events are an important part of building happiness. If your life doesn’t have a lot of positive events, you may need to add some! We need activities and events that bring us a combination of short-term and long-term happiness.
Short-term positive events are experiences that make us feel better right now. For example, you could:
- go for a walk
- talk to a friend
- ride a bike
- listen to music
- watch a movie
- watch a comedian on youtube
- go to the beach
- read a book for fun
- play an instrument
- go swimming
- spend time with your pet
- remember positive past experiences
- organize your room or home
- have down-time
- go for a hike
- read a novel
- plan something fun
- dance at home
- go out dancing
- go out for a meal
- watch sports
- think positive things about the future
Remember to try to fully experience these activities when you do them. Even the most fun activity can become unenjoyable if our minds are elsewhere.
Activities consistent with long-term fulfillment are important in a different way than the short-term positive experiences listed above. They give us a more enduring sense of satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment. Typically they help us work toward things that are important and valued by you. Some examples might include:
- improving your resume
- volunteering for a cause that’s important to you
- making friends
- make time for prayer, meditation or spirituality
- spending time with family members
- working toward furthering your schooling and education
- job searching
- maintaining relationships by staying in touch
- pursuing dating
- attending religious services
- doing something kind for someone
- spending time with your children
- keeping in touch with supportive family members
Building mastery is one of the most important ABC PLEASE skills. But what is mastery, exactly?
Mastery is the sense that we are competent and capable people. We can build this sense by engaging in activities that help us feel this way about ourselves. If you want to create and maintain happiness, you must do this on a regular basis.
Furthermore, building this sense of mastery makes us less vulnerable to negative emotions and helps us be better prepared to cope with tough situations. A good mastery activity is one that’s a bit challenging. That way when we do it we feel a sense of accomplishment. Here is a list of ideas for mastery activities. Try doing at least one a day:
- cleaning something
- showering / bathing
- playing an instrument
- helping your kids
- shaving / other grooming
- fixing something that’s broken
- paying your bills
- organizing something that needs it
- cooking a meal
- helping a loved one
- getting your work done
- doing your laundry
- physical exercise
- doing household chores
- doing a puzzle
- solving a problem
- checking in on a loved one
“Cope ahead” is a DBT skill that helps us prepare effectively for emotionally challenging situations. It’s good to use in advance of situations that are scary; in situations that might trigger you to misuse alcohol or drugs, or to self-harm; or when historically your emotions have gotten the best of you in similar situations.
Cope ahead involves two main parts: planning and envisioning. The planning part involves your thinking through what the situation is likely to look like and what emotions and urges you might have. It also involves your planning which DBT skills you’ll use to handle those emotions and urges. The envisioning part requires you to take some time to picture yourself in the situation as if it were happening now. Picture yourself using the skills you’ll need. Think through what snags in the plan might arise, and how you’ll deal with them.
The DBT PLEASE Skills
The PLEASE skills from DBT are described below. They help us manage the physical component of emotions.
Treat Physical Illness:
There are many reasons why treating physical illnesses is important to our emotional health.
- When we don’t feel our physical best we are less able to cope with various stressors. Difficulty coping can lead to frustration, anger, and other emotions that can be harmful and hard to control.
- Many health problems have symptoms that sap our ability to navigate life’s challenges. E.g., hypothyroidism or anemia can sap our energy; untreated injuries can cause chronic pain; the flu can leave us feeling out of it.
- Untreated health problems often worsen. This creates further obstacles to happiness and other positive emotions. For example, untreated diabetes can lead to difficulty walking, which can lead to an inability to work, which leads to a more isolated life with fewer opportunities for mastery activities (see “B,” above).
- Take prescribed medications.
- Visit a doctor when you need to.
- Follow through on medical recommendations.
Over the long term, eating too much or too little can put our medical and emotional health at risk. In the short term, managing emotions requires finding a balance between eating too much and too little. One important way to use this skill is to make sure you eat breakfast. Studies show that it is important for your metabolism and for your mood.
Throughout the day it’s important to eat when your body needs to; having blood sugar swings makes you more likely to be irritable or sad and less able to cope well with stress. If you find that you get too busy to eat lunch, consider some practical solutions like setting an alarm on your phone to remind you, or putting lunch in your daily calendar. Whichever strategy you choose, take seriously the importance of regular meals for good emotional health.
By the same token, overeating can worsen our mood as well. In addition to the physical discomfort, it can cause guilt and feelings of low self-worth. If overeating is a chronic, emotionally driven problem for you, address this with your DBT therapist. There are skills that can help you cope with those emotions differently and avoid overeating.
Avoid Mood-Altering Drugs:
People use mood-altering drugs for a reason — they often make us feel better in the short term. Happiness, however, is a long-term pursuit. Drugs and alcohol often get in the way.
We all have a natural capacity to cope with difficult emotions. This natural capacity is like a muscle in that if we use it, it gets stronger; if we ignore it, it gets weaker. If we ignore it all the time, the muscle atrophies altogether! Using drugs and alcohol to cope with certain emotional states weakens that muscle.
Drugs and alcohol also set us up for situations that are not conducive to happiness. They can lead us to say and do things we later regret. They can lead us to put ourselves in dangerous situations. Last but not least, they make it harder to maintain the jobs and relationships that add stability and value to our lives.
They can also lead to addiction, which compounds all the problems described above. It also changes the functioning of your brain in ways that can take a long time to repair. Addiction jeopardizes your ability to utilize any of the ABC PLEASE skills.
For all these reasons, it is helpful to minimize alcohol and illicit drug use.
What does it mean to balance sleep? To not get too much nor too little. Not getting enough sleep puts us at a disadvantage in many ways, including effects on our emotional well being. Insufficient sleep leads to reduced alertness which can lead to irritability. This can lead to other problems.
Getting too much sleep can lead to problems in different ways altogether. One such way is that excessive sleeping can cause us to miss work or school or other obligations — missing these can create challenges that leave us vulnerable to difficult emotions, adverse circumstances, and general unhappiness.
Some specific strategies to get good sleep can be found on our sleep hygiene page.
Try to get in at least 20 minutes of exercise daily. What form of exercise is best? The kind that you enjoy and is sustainable for you. For some people, that’s brisk walking around their neighborhood. For others, it’s an hour of weightlifting. The type of exercise is less important than your doing it regularly.
Exercise is known to help manage mood, and studies have shown that 30 minutes of cardio exercise, three times per week, is comparably effective as an antidepressant. Exercise is also one of the most effective ways to improve our mood when we’re feeling down. It can also be a great way to maintain a positive mood when we’re feeling good.
The ABC PLEASE skills are important for everyone who wants to manage their emotions well. If you can make each of them part of your daily routine, you’ll be set up for emotional success!
Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd edition. Guilford Press. New York.