Tolerating Distress

One of the things that has been very difficult for me in DBT is the idea of “distress tolerance”. For the most part, American society does not promote the idea that there are times that things will suck and you’ll just have to let that be and you can’t do anything to fix it. We’re a society of fixers. There’s always a solution if you try hard enough right?

Unfortunately that’s not the case. There will be times when we simply have to wait out unpleasant feelings. In general those unpleasant feelings will dissipate or be relieved with time, or after some time we will be able to change something to improve our situation. Sometimes we also just have to accept things that are shitty: certain people will not change their behavior, your health may not improve, politics might always suck. These are things that you might just have to let be. And for these things, you have to learn that your feelings may stick around and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. This is where distress tolerance comes in.

Distress tolerance is hard. It’s not about making yourself feel better, it’s rather about making it to the end of the bad feeling without doing anything to make your situation worse. This is one of the hardest things to remember while trying to tolerate nasty feelings, and it also makes it a lot harder to be successful because it’s hard to feel like it’s working. However it’s not a bad thing to feel like crap for a while. This is hard to understand for many people. It is normal, acceptable, and in fact healthy to feel like crap sometimes.

So what is distress tolerance? There are a number of elements to it and I’m not going to touch on all of them here, but I do want to talk about how many people give tips for distress tolerance and how we can really improve on those tips. I see lots of lists floating around about what to do if you’re tempted to self-harm, or how to resist purging. These lists are GREAT. They include things like holding a piece of ice, drawing on yourself with red marker, ripping something up, all great suggestions. Unfortunately not all of these things work for everyone, and it can be extremely frustrating when you look at the list and can’t find anything that speaks to you.

It seems to me that there might be a better way to approach distress tolerance that is more individualized. Of course sharing ideas and letting others know what’s helped you is great, but not everyone likes or responds to the same things. One of the things that we’ve been discussing in DBT are larger categories that can help you: things like using your senses, imagery, taking a mini-vacation, or relaxation. Each of these categories is then open to all of your personal ideas. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Senses. I’ve heard a lot of people give examples of this without quite realizing it: finding something soft, holding ice, listening to music. However I’ve often found the examples unhelpful until I heard the larger idea that you should think about your senses and try to pinpoint what sensory experiences really ground you. What makes you feel like you’re really in your body? I’ve heard people suggest scented candles, but those make me sneeze a lot and I don’t much like them, so I basically just discounted nice smelling things. When I heard that scent was something I could think about, I immediately thought about my dad’s spaghetti sauce. It makes me think of home, of youth. It grounds me. I got some from my parents to put in my freezer and now I can pull it out on a bad day and heat it up, letting that smell permeate my whole apartment. This personalization is far more effective for me than the generic suggestions were.

You can do this same sort of thing with any of the skills: what kinds of images calm me down? What would be a “safe place” I could picture? What has calmed me down in the past? What kinds of things do I find relaxing? What places feel “away” for me in my daily life? What’s out of the ordinary that I could use as a small vacation?

It’s a good idea to take some time when you’re NOT distressed to think about these things so that you have a small stockpile. For an explanation of each distress tolerance skill you can go here. I don’t think we spend enough time personalizing our coping skills, but it is important to think about what works for YOU.

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