Steps to Tolerating Distress

Painful emotions are most often experienced as intense, overwhelming, and unmanageable. They can lead us to cope in unhealthy ways because we are so flooded and don’t know what else to do. Listed below are some great techniques to try when you need a moment of relief.

1. REST (relax, evaluate, set an intention, and take action). When you start to get overwhelmed, stop what you are doing and breathe. Create some distance between yourself and the situation. Observe what’s happening for you mentally, emotionally, and physically. Ask yourself what is actually happening in the situation. Set an intention of what you will do to manage the overwhelming emotions in a healthy way and take action towards that coping skill. Remember this is a process that will not be done perfectly, but it can be done mindfully.

2. Radical Acceptance. Ruminating on painful situations from the past only serves to increase our emotional distress in the present. Radical acceptance involves acknowledging situations without judgments or criticisms. It does not mean that we condone hurtful behavior; it simply means we stop trying to change what has already happened by assigning blame and, in turn, feeling angry. Some helpful statements to repeat are:

– This is the way it has to be.

– I can’t change what’s already happened.

– Fighting the past blinds me to the present.

– This moment is exactly as it should be, even if I don’t like what’s happening.

3. Distraction. Sometimes we just need a break from feeling so emotionally overloaded, and distraction can be an incredibly useful tool. You can distract yourself with pleasurable activities, doing something for someone you love, repeating your favorite quote, counting your breath, recalling some of your most enjoyable memories, or writing a funny story. Note that distraction allows us some time away from overwhelm so we can come back to it more clearly, whereas avoidance pushes us further from facing what is stressing us out.

4. Soothe yourself. When we take the time to calm our bodies down from overwhelming emotions, our brains are better able to process and decide on better ways to cope. Sooth all five of your senses—burn your favorite scented candle, draw a picture, listen to calming music, drink some warm tea, or curl up under your softest blanket. Once we attend to the state of our physical being, we can reassess how we are emotionally and mentally.

If you are struggling with overwhelming emotions and you are in the Chicagoland area, please feel free to contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc. at 708-633-8000.

Written by Kathryn

2021 Graduate Intern

Resources:  McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2019). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance. New Harbinger Publications.

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