Distress Tolerance

photo of a piece of rope being stressed and pulled almost to the point of breaking - distress tolerance skills - hired power breakawayDistress tolerance skills help a person deal with overwhelming emotions or pain. A person who experiences overwhelming emotions on a regular basis must have strong distress tolerance skills in order to avoid letting the emotions control the person.

If a person does not know how to manage their emotions they will resort to unhealthy, unsuccessful ways of coping such as drug or alcohol use or some other harmful behavior.

Common unhealthy coping strategies include:

  • Accepting an unhappy situation or life for oneself
  • Avoiding pleasant activities due to not feeling good enough for them
  • Avoiding the task of dealing with problems directly
  • Engaging in self-harming behaviors
  • Engaging in unsafe behaviors
  • Getting anxious or worrying about future mistakes or problems
  • Isolating from other people to avoid distressing situations
  • Numbing out with drugs, alcohol or food (self-medicating)
  • Spending a lot of time thinking about past mistakes and problems
  • Suicidal thoughts or acts
  • Taking intense emotions out on other people

Techniques for Increasing Distress Tolerance

Distress tolerance will require a change in a person’s attitude towards life events. Acceptance involves avoiding judgment; accepting that a situation happened and taking it for what it is; and accepting oneself exactly as is. One must remember that a long chain of events has occurred to bring about the distressing situation, many of which were out of the person’s control. Moving away from blaming others and focusing on what needs to be and can be done is one of the tenants of acceptance.

Distraction as a distress tolerance skill helps a person stop thinking about the source of the distress. Distraction is not avoidance. Distraction gives the emotions time to settle down. During distraction a person will have the time to find a healthy coping response. Distraction can be accomplished by engaging in pleasurable activities, focusing on someone else other than oneself, leaving a situation, doing tasks and chores or doing something as simple as counting until the emotions subside.

When emotions are intense, it is necessary to sooth oneself to calm the emotions. Distress tolerance using self-soothing techniques creates peace and relief within a person so that the person can rationally figure out how to respond to the source of the distress in a productive way. Here is a list of effective self-soothing activities:

Using the Senses
Using the senses to create pleasant sensations such as smelling fresh cut grass or a favorite perfume; looking at art or pictures that bring up good feelings; listening to soothing music, audio books or talk radio; eating a favorite meal or food; touching something soft; taking a warm bath or getting a massage.

Visualizing and Relaxing
Creating a safe, soothing place in the imagination that can be recalled during times of overwhelming emotions will help the body to calm down quicker. Learning and utilizing cue-controlled relaxation is an effective way to increase one’s distress tolerance. Progressive muscle relaxation is another very effective form of relaxation that can be done anywhere, at any time.

Identifying Values
Rediscovering the ideas, concepts and actions that bring worth and importance to one’s life is powerful way to increase distress tolerance. Remembering what one values and identifying how a situation is not in line with the values helps a person to tolerate a distressing situation and eventually create a more fulfilling life for himself.

Identifying a Higher Power
Having a belief and faith in something bigger and more powerful than oneself often makes a person feel empowered, safe and calm. Believing that there is something or someone out there, watching over and protecting one, and providing assistance in handling life is very soothing to most people and is a component of strong distress tolerance skills.

Taking Time for Oneself

When living with intense emotions, it is important to take regular time out for oneself in order to refresh the mind, body and spirit. Fulfilling one’s own needs is not a selfish activity; it is a basic human right that leads to more contentment and peace. Distress tolerance is easier when a person takes time to engage in regular self care.

Living in the Moment
Living in the moment is about being mindful of oneself and his surroundings at any given moment. It’s easy to get bogged down thinking about the past, the future, multitasking or worrying about everything that needs to be done in a day. When the mind is bogged down that way, a person is not truly experiencing life as it is occurring.

Using Coping Thoughts and Statements

What a person says to himself determines much of how he feels. Engaging in negative, debasing self talk only leads to more negative feelings and undermines distress tolerance. A person’s coping thoughts should be encouraging, helpful, uplifting, hopeful, supportive, objective and soothing. Self-affirming statements help to build a healthier self-image and self-esteem. Self-affirming statements work to remind a person of his good qualities and strengths.