What Are Distress Tolerance Skills?

Everyone experiences a wide variety of stress during life, especially at the moment during the pandemic. We’ve been through so much in our work lives and personal circumstances and the worst part is – we can’t control any of it! Whether your stress is large or small, your ability to tolerate stress (or let’s call it for the sake of this article – distress) can play a role in how you manage the situation. Learning Distress Tolerance Skills can make such a huge difference in your ability to handle difficult emotions and situations.

So, what exactly is Distress Tolerance? Simply put, it is your ability to manage actual or perceived emotional distress. It also involves being able to make it through an emotional time or situation without making it worse in your own mind. People who have lower distress tolerance can become overwhelmed by stressful situations and may sometimes turn to unhealthy or even destructive ways of coping with these difficult emotions, for example drinking too much or using avoidance to get away from what is happening.

Now that we understand a little more about what Distress Tolerance is, how do we begin to grow these skills within ourselves?


Try These Clever Hacks To Improve Your Distress Tolerance Skills

If you’re having an emotional time, or are faced with a situation which would usually make you catastrophise or get incredibly upset and anxious, try remembering these words to help you tolerate that distress in a better way.


Try to IMPROVE the moment…


I Imagery – get yourself to a space space – maybe that’s your bedroom, or a green area outside

M Meaning – what does this situation mean, in reality? Is it as bad as it seems?

P Prayer – work on your meditation, your positive affirmations: ‘I can do this’

R Relaxation – perhaps some simple self-care or yoga will help

O One thing at a time – don’t try to fix the situation all at once, take it slow

V Vacation – can you take some time out of the situation? Imagine yourself on a lovely holiday on the beach

E Encouragement – be there for yourself with your own positive and calming self-talk


You can also try ACCEPTS…


A Activities – can you distract yourself with something else to do, i.e. journaling?

C Contributing – don’t focus on yourself – help others for a while

C Comparisons – this is a GOOD comparison. Remember what you’re like when you’re at your best

E Emotions – try to generate different emotions by watching a funny box set on Netflix or listening to happy music

P Pushing away – thinking about or putting your attention onto something else – can you complete some errands?

T Thoughts – change those thoughts up – can you count five of one thing in the room you’re in? Try to spot a bird in the sky

S Sensations – use seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching senses to change your thought patterns



Practising Your Distress Tolerance Skills

These hacks should make you feel better by diverting your attention away from the distressing thoughts and emotions. The idea is to fill your brain with other, positive and different thoughts so there’s no room for the distressing ones. The hacks work even better if you choose something that will really grab your attention and keep you engrossed in that activity. Don’t forget, different things will work for different people – keep up the practice and see what works for you.

You can take a look at some other self-soothing techniques here.

Another great idea is to try to trigger the opposite emotion to what you are feeling. For example, if you’re feeling very angry, watch a movie that always makes you laugh. If you’re feeling anxious, try to trigger a calm emotion by listening to your favourite song, or reaching out to a close friend.

Be careful to remember that these are coping techniques, intended to be used when you are in a difficult situation or experiencing negative emotions. However, if your situation is increasingly bad or you are struggling to manage your emotions, please speak to someone for support, including a close family member, friend or GP.

Would you use these Distress Tolerance techniques to manage your negative emotions? Do you know any more?

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