Most of us have found ourselves in situations where we feel totally overwhelmed—really upset, stressed, frustrated, or even so overcome with emotion that we feel unable to make a decision or move forward.
Maybe it was a conflict with a friend or family member, a challenging task at work, a mistake that impacted our child, or just one of those days where lots of little things went wrong, over and over. Whatever the reason, it felt like too much to handle.
Enter: distress tolerance.
A five-dollar phrase, maybe, but a simple set of really useful skills.
What Is Distress Tolerance?
What is distress tolerance, anyway?
Glad you asked!
Distress tolerance is the ability to manage and cope with emotional discomfort or pain without losing your cool or experiencing significant overwhelm.
You can think of it as mental and emotional resilience. Just like a ship is built to withstand a storm, distress tolerance is the ability you’ve cultivated to navigate through life’s challenges… without sinking.
This ability is vital for maintaining mental health and well-being. When we can adequately tolerate distress, we can handle situations more effectively, build healthier relationships, and lead happier lives.
Okay, But… What is Distress Tolerance, Really?
Let’s dig in a little deeper to the concept of distress tolerance. Sure, it’s an emotional buffer of sorts—but how can it really benefit us?
Distress tolerance is about handling tough emotions like anger, sadness, or anxiety… Without letting them control us.
Imagine a seesaw. On one side, you’ve got the emotions, and on the other side, you’ve got your actions. The goal is to keep them balanced. We’re not trying to squash or ignore our emotions (let’s be real—that rarely works in the long run), but we also don’t want to let them dictate our behavior.
Distress tolerance and emotional regulation are related, but they aren’t the same. Emotional regulation is like turning a volume knob to adjust your emotions—to make them louder or quieter, based on the situation. But distress tolerance is about handling the discomfort and staying calm even when our emotions are blaring through the speakers.
Let’s be clear: developing distress tolerance isn’t about pretending everything’s fine when it’s not. We’re not looking to deny or feel shame around our emotions. But there’s value in accepting that life will throw us curveballs along the way and building our resilience so that we can make the best decisions possible in the face of those things.
In short, distress tolerance is an invaluable skill for managing life’s ups and downs. It helps us keep cool under pressure, rebound after setbacks, and get through challenging situations without losing our way.
Building Distress Tolerance Skills
How do we build distress tolerance skills when we need them?
We can focus on these four foundational distress tolerance concepts:
At first glance, distraction might seem like a bad thing—after all, don’t we want to confront the source of our distress? But distraction, in this context, doesn’t mean burying our head in the sand or denying how we feel. It simply means giving ourselves the time and space to clear our minds and reduce the intensity of our stress.
Whether it’s reading a book, watching a movie, or engaging in a yoga session, it can be valuable to shift our focus when things get tough and let our nervous system calm down before doing anything else.
How would you address a friend in distress? Probably with a lot more kindness than you’d typically show yourself, right?
The idea of self-soothing means applying that same kindness to ourselves. You can listen to your favorite music, enjoy a cup of tea, take a relaxing bath, or spend time outdoors or with loved ones. Do whatever you need to feel calm and nurtured.
IMPROVE the Moment
IMPROVE the moment refers to a specific set of skills or actions that can lessen your immediate stress. The acronym stands for:
- Imagery: Use your imagination and visualize anything that calms you. Maybe it’s being in your favorite place or successfully overcoming the challenge before you. Maybe you want to visualize all of your negative emotions being tied up in a balloon and drifting away into the sky!
- Meaning: Whether or not we believe that everything happens for a reason, we can often find higher meaning—or learning—in difficult experiences. Focus on your values or longer-term goals, and explore how your current situation might align.
- Prayer: Even if you aren’t religious, prayer can be a way of connecting our experiences to something larger than ourselves. Maybe you’ll pray to a particular deity, or maybe you’ll explore your relationship to the world or universe around you.
- Relaxing Actions: Doing yoga, taking a bath, going for a walk, or listening to music—whatever you find relaxing can help you access a deeper well of patience, understanding, or acceptance within yourself.
- One Thing in the Moment: This is a strategy akin to mindfulness. It means focusing on the present moment and doing one thing—taking one step—at a time. Don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future… Instead, keep gently bringing your attention back to what you’re doing right now.
- Vacation: Not all vacations need to last for a week or involve leaving your home! You can give yourself a mental vacation by taking a few minutes or a few hours to truly give yourself a much-needed break. Curl up with a good book, crawl back under the covers, or ignore social media for the day. Whatever you need to disengage for a restorative period!
- Encouragement: This one is about learning to be your own hype squad. Do your best to break through any self-judgment and give yourself the same encouragement you’d give a friend or loved one if they were the one going through a hard time. You’ve got this!
These strategies won’t make your problems go away, but they can help bring them into perspective—and bring you back to yourself.
Accepting the situation you’re in doesn’t mean you have to like it. In fact, it’s better if you know you don’t. After all, denying our emotions isn’t a sustainable strategy, right?
But accepting the reality of the moment can help us avoid a lot of painful struggling—and it can help us move on to solutions or next steps even faster.
The Benefits of Developing Distress Tolerance Skills
Distress tolerance doesn’t simply get us through the rough times—it helps us thrive, despite them.
When we can handle distress, as not-fun as it might be, we’re less likely to react impulsively or make decisions we’ll later wish we hadn’t. We can stay calm and level-headed, even when things are difficult. This can help us maintain healthy relationships, too… We’ve all experienced the impact of things said in the heat of the moment, haven’t we?
Distress tolerance is also linked to better mental health, overall. It can help reduce anxiety, lessen our risk for depression, and even help us avoid other mental health struggles. By learning to navigate our emotions instead of being at their mercy, we can build resilience and enjoy a better quality of life.
Distress Tolerance Skills Can be Built from the Ground Up
Distress tolerance is a set of skills that can be built from the ground up—that’s the good news. Anyone can start from anywhere… No matter how you’ve dealt with struggle in the past.
Mindfulness plays a large role here. We can use these techniques to release ourselves from the regrets of the past and the anxieties of the future by staying present and charting a brand new course for ourselves, moment by mindful moment!
Pay attention to self-care, including the nourishment and movement your body needs to stay physically healthy.
And don’t be afraid to seek guidance and support from a qualified mental health professional. Therapists are trained in these skills and can be there to help as you learn to navigate our emotions.