Thoughtful Thursday: Tolerating Distress

Everyone who wants to enact a self-healing process must first learn how to deal with distress.

I spoke in a previous post about how to avoid getting overwhelmed by feelings identified in therapy. Today, I want to really dial in on the topic of how you develop the skill for tolerating distress.

Why? Because unless you have some ability to tolerate distress, you won’t be able to focus enough on what’s happening inside of you to be able to pinpoint the problem that needs resolution. And you won’t be able to take the next step toward enacting a solution.

So, what are Distress Tolerance Skills?

They are the skills you need to help you when you get overwhelmed with physical or emotional pain. If you don’t have distress tolerance skills, you probably engage in lots of activities meant to stop the pain right now! But when you try to stop pain in the moment, you usually end up causing other problems while looking for a solution:

  • Overeating
  • Overspending
  • Increases in physical stress symptoms and illness
  • Obsessing about the past
  • Worrying excessively about your future
  • Isolating yourself from other people who could support you
  • Numbing out with alcohol or drugs
  • Taking your feelings out on other people
  • Hurting yourself
  • Avoiding pleasant activities because of the consequences of your non-helpful attempts to stop the pain

It can become quite an unpleasant cycle. One that prevents you from feeling better, since what you are trying to do to resolve the problem brings it’s own pain.

Distress Tolerance

Learn Distress Tolerance Skills to help you deal with temporary discomfort without bringing on new problems.

Distress Tolerance Skills are used to help you feel better without causing new problems.

In order to use them, you have to do some prep work.

Here are the steps:

1. Identify all of the things you do to try to deal with your emotions when things get overwhelming.

2. List all of the ways these behaviors keep you from what you want in your life.

3. Begin creating a list of activities that you enjoy – things that bring you only benefits with no cost.

Let me give you an example.

One of my unhealthy ways of coping is eating junk food – usually pastries and other baked goods.

1. Costs:

  • I usually don’t feel good when I eat that food – gives me an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach
  • I usually also feel guilt about indulging when I hadn’t planned to
  • Eating pastries usually leads to MORE craving for the same kinds of foods
  • Increases is weight
  • Loss of energy based on deviation from my typical healthy eating plan

2. How do these behaviors limit me:

  • Increased “down time” when I’m “recovering” from overdoing it with baked foods
  • Less enjoyment of these types of foods as an intentional choice
  • Less likelihood that I’ll have a summer bikini body 😉
  • More risk that I could end up with an illness – sugary foods reduce the body’s ability to fight infection

3. Behaviors that help without cost:

  • Going for a walk
  • Talking to a friend
  • Journaling
  • Getting enough sleep (being overly tired usually leads to increased baked-good cravings)

Your assignment for this Thoughtful Thursday is to create your own list. In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss more ways to improve your Distress Tolerance Skills toolbox so you can continue to move forward in your self-growth process.

Until then,

Be really well.




© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2016 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.

Exercise adapted from: Copyright © 2007 by Matthew McKay, Jeffrey C Wood and Jeffrey Brantley. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook.



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