Dealing with intense emotions or thoughts in real or perceived distressful situations can be overwhelming for some people. The intensity of emotions experienced may lead to unhealthy or even harmful behaviors in order to cope with their distress. Stressful situations can range from day-to-day accumulating small worries to large events such as a serious illness. Being able to handle distress, whether large or small, is an ability that is needed to manage these situations. This is referred to as distress tolerance. Many people are capable of handling varied situations with what appears to be little to no impact. However, for some people, strong reactions which may include guilt, anger, sadness, anxiety or other strong emotions make it difficult to manage the situations or themselves.
Although learning to tolerate distress can be a long process usually involving some form of therapy such as Dialectic Behavior Therapy or Cognitive Behavior Therapy, there are some techniques which can be utilized to reduce strong emotional reactions.
Distraction is a technique which involves a number of ways to take the mind off of an upsetting situation or ruminating thoughts. By focusing on a project, watching a movie, video or favorite television show, etcetera, you can reduce the potential of becoming overwhelmed by strong emotions or unhelpful thoughts such as “I can’t handle this” or “This is too much”.
Self-Soothing is another method. This method uses the senses such as taste, touch, sight and hearing. Go for a walk and breath the air, light a scented candle and take a bath, or listen to some music with the focus on what you are experiencing through your senses.
Another technique is radical acceptance. This involves accepting things as they are, recognizing what is out of your control and what can’t be changed. Then letting go of negative emotions. This is a more advanced technique which takes practice to master and often needs a therapist to assist in learning how to implement and gain acceptance. There are several other techniques which could be learned with guidance and support.
Ways in which to implement and practice distress tolerance skills are varied. The most obvious is to be active. Take a walk or a run, clean something or do some yardwork. Comparing the current situation to other times distress was experienced and recognizing that you made it through those times, then give yourself credit is another way to implement distress tolerance. Acting the opposite of the emotion currently experience can also help. If you feel sad, do something that makes you happy or makes you laugh.
Becoming aware of how you respond in distressful situations and learning to change the behaviors or correct unhelpful thoughts is the goal of therapeutic intervention and emotional management in therapy. Anxiety and worry are normal emotional experiences, so when feeling overwhelmed by your emotions and thoughts or feeling unable to cope with situations because of emotional distress, then having ways of decreasing the uncomfortable feelings is a necessary skill.
Ann Hogan, LCPC