How to Tolerate Emotional Distress
Skills for parents and teens during a pandemic and always
Posted Mar 23, 2020
We as a society are currently experiencing a lot of strong emotions in reaction to the coronavirus outbreak, its global implications, and its personal implications. For many, the intensity of these emotions is far greater than our resources for coping with them.
As parents, our need to successfully handle these emotions is important for our own well-being as well as the well-being of our children. They are experiencing their own reactions. In addition, they are trying to manage very stressed-out parents. We need to manage our own emotions effectively in order to be able to support our kids in managing their reactions, and in order to provide models for how to manage strong emotions.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a form of therapy designed to help people with problems related to emotion dysregulation. I am fairly sure that applies to the entire world at this moment in time. So, now is definitely a good time for the universal practice of DBT skills.
We know that distress is part of life and sometimes cannot be avoided. Distress tolerance skills address the reality that sometimes we need to tolerate our emotional state without attempting to change it (though there are skills for that too!). There is a multitude of ways to do this.
DBT recognizes that we can tolerate distress more effectively by reducing contact with the source of our distress, or at least aspects of it. In other words, distract yourself and encourage kids to distract themselves. Currently, that might mean distracting from the news and conversations (including on social media) about coronavirus. We cannot distract all the time, as we need to stay informed, but it is necessary some of the time.
Both now and more generally, distraction can be overused. We don’t want to simply avoid all emotions. The most appropriate uses of distraction are when emotions threaten to overwhelm us, and when problems can’t be solved immediately. Both of these factors are in place for many of us right now. Some problem-solving can be done, but a lot will have to wait. While we wait, and while our kids wait, we all need to strengthen our ability to tolerate distress without making matters worse in any way.
DBT identifies seven sets of distraction skills that we can practice and teach our kids. They are captured by the acronym ACCEPTS.
Activities: With lots of unstructured time on many people’s hands, we need to find activities that are non-stressful distractions. At my house, that has involved some art projects, some baking, and yes, Netflix and Hulu. Reading has been a great distraction (so feel free to use this time to catch up on my blog). While we all need to keep learning and working, we also need to do some activities that are just fun and calming.
Teenagers tend to like a lot of alone time. That’s OK, but try to do some fun activities together. That will allow you to model effective distraction. Moreover, it will allow you to share in pleasant emotions.
Contributing: Refocus attention from self to others. This does not just mean financial contributions. I have seen people doing grocery shopping for those who shouldn’t go out or sharing resources they have discovered. You can contribute to someone else just by reaching out, especially with a laugh or show of support. Encourage kids to do the same. There are plenty of ways within the family that each person can contribute to helping other family members.
Comparisons: We all have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others, which can be used to our advantage by framing our own stress in a more positive light. We can do this by recognizing others who are in more difficult situations. The warning here is that the comparison should not be used to discount your own stress. An alternative is to compare to past distressing situations you have successfully navigated. I always remind myself that I have been through worse and come out OK.
Help teens recognize obstacles they have previously overcome and the ways they are now better equipped to handle them. Validate their feelings of distress while also helping them be mindful of ways it could be worse. Again, validation is key. We do not want to communicate that they should not be distressed because it could be worse. The effective message is: “This is really hard, and it could be worse.”
Emotions: Do things that generate a different emotional experience than the one you are currently experiencing. Watch a funny movie, or scroll through some joke websites. Look at scenes that bring a sense of calm. I like to listen to calming music to counteract the sense of urgency I am feeling. My teens enjoy similar activities. We have all had some good distractions watching them make music videos.
Pushing Away: Pushing away from distress can take many forms. It can mean leaving a situation, blocking news of the distress (i.e., the news and social media), or pushing off negative impulses that come with our distress. I have found myself checking the news and Facebook far more often than I typically would, so I am trying to push off my urges to check for as long as I can.
For the same reason, I am keeping an eye on how much time I allow my teens to engage with the rumors and distress they see on social media. They need to engage with their friends. At the same time, they need to be mindful of what interactions create laughter and connection versus those that just focus on fear and sadness.
Thoughts: We simply cannot think about two things at the same time. So, distract your short-term memory with other focused thoughts, such as singing a song, doing a crossword, listing facts related to a personal interest. I have one client who likes to count backward from 1,000. That’s a little too hard for me, so I stick with turning on happy music and singing along.
Sensations: When we experience bursts of extreme distress, a strong physical sensation can be a great distraction. I typically get the most positive feedback from some form of splashing ice-water on your face or placing a cooling eye-mask on your eyes. Other options might include spicy food or a hot bath. People typically laugh at me for this, but I also like standing on my head.
None of these ACCEPTS skills will solve our distress, present or future. However, I am hoping they will help us all tolerate this together. We can do this for ourselves and for our teens. As much as we would love to spare our kids all distress, we are more effective parents if we teach them how to tolerate it when it comes. Now is the perfect opportunity.
Linehan, M.M. 2015.DBT Skills Traing Manual, Second Edition. New York: Guilford Press