Many times in life we come across a problem that we cannot fix right away. During these times, therapists encourage a fancy term called “distress tolerance”. But what exactly does this term mean? Distress tolerance is all about handling a stressful moment without making matters worse.
Let’s say you’re expecting to have a difficult conversation with your spouse that evening. It makes sense that you feel at edge most of the day. You may end up drinking, avoiding your family members, being snippy with your colleagues, cancelling work, or any other strategy to cope with the edginess. These behaviours all make sense given that you’re stressed about the upcoming conversation. However, all of these behaviours tend to create further complications. Not only do you have to deal with the difficult conversation with your partner, but you also have to sober up, apologize for the avoidant behaviours, make amends to your relationships with colleagues, and grovel to your boss. All in all, we’ve taken a crappy situation, and made it significantly harder.
Don’t get me wrong, I have also chosen some not-so effective strategies on my worst days. We all make mistakes. The point is not to judge ourselves for these mistakes. Instead, we want to see if there are better ways to help us cope. This is where distress tolerance skills come into play. Using well-known strategies like distractions (i.e. video games, reading, watching TV, exercise) and self-care (i.e. comfort foods, long bath, getting a massage) are perfect at these times. They help you tolerate the waiting period until the end of the day when you can finally address the real issue with your spouse.
People often get frustrated with coping strategies because “they don’t make us feel good”. Fair enough. Distress tolerance isn’t meant to make you feel better (although, if they do put you in a better mood, enjoy it 🙂 ). These coping skills are all about tolerating the pain, not actually fixing the pain. In the above example, your primary concern is getting through a hard conversation with your spouse. Unless this is addressed and resolved, why expect that watching TV, taking a walk, or any other distraction will make you feel better? So how do we practice “distress tolerance skills” effectively? Here are a few key points:
1) Find distractions that actually get you distracted
If you are going to be bored out of your mind reading a textbook, this is not an effective coping strategy! Your mind will naturally return back to whatever is stressing you out. If you’re stuck thinking of effective distractions, I recommend an activity that is active or new so that you have to concentrate on the task at hand. Think about the first time you drove a car on your own. If you were angry that day, consider how difficult it would have been to maintain the intensity of your anger AND concentrate on following all the steps to drive. Your mind doesn’t have the mental capacity to do both at the same time effectively. Instead, you have to mindfully focus on driving so that you don’t crash.
2) Have a bunch of coping strategies to use in a moment of crisis.
Some days we’ll only need to dance along with music in the car to ease our anxieties. Other days, we may have to eat a chocolate bar, go for a bike ride, snuggle up with our pets AND practice some breathing exercises. Neither options are wrong. It just depends on our needs in that moment.
3) Use the acronym ACCEPTS
This is a great term from dialectical behaviour therapy that is useful for distress tolerance.
A= Activities (Participate in activities that you enjoy, or help you stay effectively distracted)
C= Contribute (Helping others out makes us feel better about ourselves, and it takes us away from our own stress)
C= Compare (Think about a time when you struggled more than this present moment. This helps you recognize that you were able to overcome hardships, and puts this current issue into perspective).
E= Emotions (What will create a different emotion than the one you’re feeling? Watching sitcoms makes me laugh. Going for a run makes me feel confident. Giving my son hugs makes me happy. What works for you?)
P= Push away thoughts (Definitely not one I recommend long-term. It’s okay to tell yourself that you cannot think about a certain stressor right now. For example, if you’re supposed to be concentrating on your exam, it’s probably not the ideal time to be thinking about a fight you had with your partner the day before. Pushing away thoughts is a helpful method so long as you come back to the thought at a more convenient time).
T= replace Thoughts (Focus on something else. Plan your family vacation. Think about the book you’re reading. How do you think it will end? Basically, focus on anything else except the present issue).
S= Sensations (Find safe physical sensations to use as distractions. i.e. a soothing cup of tea, a cold ice cube, a hot compress).
4) It’s okay to take a mini-vacation from the stressor if it takes a long time to get things sorted.
Whether this is a physical escape or a short mental break (i.e. guided meditation, pushing away thoughts). The stressor is still there when you return from the break, but the rest gives you some time to feel calmer and more at peace
5) Problem solve whenever possible!
At the end of the day, nothing will help you feel fully at peace until the stressor is resolved (or you willingly radically accept that the issue will not be fixed). This means hunkering down and brainstorming various solutions. As always, everyone’s situation is unique. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out.