Childhood trauma reactions: worksheet REST strategy

The REST strategy

After having identified self-destructive and problematic behaviours — as well as their costs — there are needed distress tolerance strategies, the first of which is described there: the REST strategy.

REST stands for:
Situational intent, and
Take action.

Changing any habit is difficult. It requires knowledge about the action to be changed, a resolve to change it, and a decision about what to change it with. But first, you need to remember that you wanted to change something about your action in the first place. Remembering that you want to change may be hard, when the action is an automatic response, as are the reactions to childhood trauma under the onslaught of an emotional flashback. That is when we act impulsively to escape the intensity of unbearable emotions. The results are often self-destructive coping strategies. This happens because emotional flashbacks are largely unpredictable trigger states, when the planned behavioural change is completely lost from the focus of attention.

To remember any resolve to change when feeling overwhelmed, opening a window of opportunity for a decision about any reaction to an emotional flashback, is the first step. The REST strategy comes to the rescue by doing exactly that: relax, evaluate, build a situational intent, and only then take action.

The REST strategy: Relax

Remember the phrase from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t Panic“. Out in the galaxy of your emotions and thoughts or here on Earth, stop whatever you are doing. Step back. Take a breath. Pause. Leave the situation for a moment to gain perspective. Just do not do what you normally would. Don’t be rash. Remind yourself that you can take the decision to behave as you choose. Create a “window” between your instinctive desire to act impulsively and your real action. Say it out loud or just in your mind: “Stop”, “Relax”, or “REST”. Then breathe and calmly choose a meaningful action.

The REST strategy: Evaluate

Ask yourself what is really going on. What would a camera see? What is happening to you physically, emotionally, and mentally? Also observe what others around you are doing? There is no need for any detailed analysis of emotions and their why-s and how-s. Neither do you have to come up with a perfect solution to the situation. Just get a general idea of what is happening. How do you feel? What is going on? Is there any danger for you or anyone else?

The REST strategy: Situational intent

With the gained perspective, formulate an intent for this situation. That intent is a resolve about what you are going to do. Which action are you going to take? Which goals, plans, rules or values are informing that decision? Ask yourself: “What do I need right now? What do I need to do for myself?” Whatever it is that you do, it does not have to be “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”: 42. Nor does it have to be the final or best solution to the problem at hand. All that is needed is something healthy that will help you deal with the situation.

The REST strategy: Take action

Finally, plan – do – act. Make your resolve happen. Choose mindfully and slowly your means, and be careful about what you are doing. Set your intent, in the last step, into motion as calmly and effectively as you can. Anything goes that is mindful of becoming healthier and more effective than the automatic self-defeating coping strategy.

This seems like a whole lot of thinking to do — especially when facing an emotional flashback or a sabre tooth tiger. But with practice and habituation, the REST strategy can be accomplished in just a few seconds.

Next to this, be aware that you might need to use REST strategy steps more than just once in any given situation. If REST it did not work the first time through, go back and do it again. Check for missed details or changing conditions of the situation. Keep running the steps until you did find and implement a meaningful action, or until you can effectively leave the situation altogether.

The REST strategy: exercise

Practice makes perfect, also when using the REST strategy. Therefore, if you haven’t done so before, identify your self-defeating coping strategies to find out and anticipate when you need to use the REST strategy.

Now remember a problematic situation that recently caused you to feel emotionally overwhelmed. Do your best to identify your impulsive reaction, and you could have done to better cope with the situation by using the REST strategy. For example, calming yourself down or communicate better during an argument. Answer the following questions:

What happened in this distressing situation?

How did you feel?

What did you do?

Did you engage in any self-destructive behaviours? If yes, what were they?

Now use the REST strategy and imagine what could have happened differently.

How could you have relaxed (R) in this situation?

If you had done an evaluation (E), what would you have discovered?

If you had set an intention (S), what would it have been?

If you had taken action (T) in this situation, what might have happened?

What would the overall advantages have been if you had used the REST strategy?

Download the REST strategy exercise as a PDF worksheet here:


Matthew McKay, Jeffrey C. Wood, and Jeffrey Brantley: The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook

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