5 Ways to Deal With Distress
Painful and uncomfortable emotions are part of life. The way you cope matters.
Posted May 17, 2019
Distress is an inevitable part of life, but tolerating it at high intensities can be really challenging. Therapy focuses on changing thoughts, behaviors, and situations so that life feels better in the short term. Importantly, therapy also teaches people to endure emotional pain or discomfort in healthy ways, so that life is better in the long term. These are some of the situations where therapists work with patients to tolerate distress, so that they can live less symptomatic, more fulfilling lives:
- Talking about trauma instead of avoiding it
- Experiencing obsessions without acting on compulsions
- Speaking in front of a group despite high levels of anxiety
- Feeling angry without acting on urges to hurt others
- Being heartbroken without misusing alcohol
- Asserting an opinion despite feeling insecure
A therapeutic relationship can be a particularly useful context for learning distress tolerance skills, but they may also be useful outside of therapy. Here are five suggestions for getting through tough moments derived from approaches like dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy:
1. Accept. When we dislike our emotions, it's tempting to deny, avoid, or fight them. However, those actions exacerbate the situation by adding more shame and suffering into the mix. Instead, try accepting your emotions as they are in the moment—without judging them or yourself for having them.
2. Find Meaning. Are you enduring difficult emotions so that you can act in accordance with your values, or so that you can meet a goal? Is there a way to make meaning or learn something valuable from your experience? Distress can be easier to bear when there's a purpose to or from it.
3. Soothe Yourself. When people have a medical illness, they usually take extra care to comfort themselves. A similar strategy can be useful when facing painful emotions. Try finding music, scenery, or healthy activities that make the feelings hurt less.
4. Seek Social Support. Stress is less of a burden when you have people to help you through it. Find people who comfort you, see the situation from a new perspective, or just let you know that you're not alone.
5. Remember that you can get through it. Distress feels worse when you believe that: 1) you can't withstand it, and 2) it'll always be at its highest intensity. Looking at your past, are there examples of other hardships you've made it through? Are there other people who made it through what you're enduring? Answers to these questions can boost your confidence, so that you can tolerate the distress, even when you don't feel like it. Secondly, emotions usually fade in intensity with the passage of time. Even when emotions return in waves, there are varying levels of intensity in between them. Remember that you will have periods of relief from the toughest parts, even if it doesn't feel that way in the moment.