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Dealing with Life’s Curveballs: Practicing Distress Tolerance

Distress Tolerance

Life has its share of uncomfortable moments, from running out of your cherished coffee creamer to coping with the loss of a loved one. We all face distressing and trying times. However, our ability to navigate these challenging emotions is where distress tolerance comes into play.

Distress tolerance skills form a crucial component of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), one of the four modules that DBT uses to help individuals effectively regulate their behaviors and emotions. Additionally, DBT is instrumental in treating a wide range of mental health conditions, including personality disorders, chronic depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and addiction.

The other three modules within DBT encompass interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and mindfulness.

Understanding Distress Tolerance

So, what is distress tolerance? Essentially, it’s the capacity to handle genuine or perceived emotional distress. While everyone encounters trying times, like losing a job, engaging in a heated argument, or making a mistake, your ability to navigate these situations without exacerbating them defines distress tolerance.

Individuals with low distress tolerance often struggle to cope with stressful situations, often finding them overwhelming. This can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, avoidance, or anger.

The primary objective of distress tolerance is to avoid making the situation worse. If you manage to get through a tough situation without making it worse, you’ve effectively practiced distress tolerance. Once the distress is manageable, you can then apply other skills to alter the situation, regulate your emotions, or address issues with others.

Exploring Distress Tolerance Skills

Distress tolerance skills are techniques to slow down your emotional response to a situation, not meant for problem-solving but rather for managing challenging emotions.

Distress tolerance skills are not a way of life. They are a toolbox of skills to use when there are no other options available, when you can’t use other skills, or when the timing isn’t right for problem-solving. In other words, these skills are meant to help you work through the emotions in the moment, so you can later employ more effective tools to address the underlying problem.

Here are a few specific distress tolerance skills:

Distracting: This skill helps you shift your focus to something more positive or neutral, diverting your attention from uncomfortable emotions. Engage in enjoyable activities like hobbies, self-care practices, or spending time with friends.

Self-soothing: Involves utilizing your five senses to navigate difficult moments. Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell can all be used to comfort yourself in the moment. Light your favorite candle, savor a cup of tea, or relish the sensation of a soft blanket.

Improving the Moment: You can also employ the IMPROVE skillset to enhance the moment:

Imagery: Visualize yourself in a soothing place

Meaning/Purpose: Seek the positive aspects of the situation or the hidden benefits

Prayer: Turn to prayer for inner strength if you believe in a higher power.

Relaxation: Practice relaxation techniques such as mindful breathing or listening to calming music.

One Thing: Focus on one thing in the present moment.

Vacation: Take a mental break from the situation, either through your imagination or by making time for yourself.

Encouragement: Speak to yourself in a compassionate, positive manner.

Focusing on Pros and Cons 

Finally, this skill involves creating a list of the pros and cons of tolerating distress versus not tolerating it. Analyzing the long and short-term effects of effectively managing your emotions can help reduce impulsive reactions, so you can manage distress long-term.

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