Distress Tolerance Skills for Healthier Relationships

Photo by Mason Wilkes on Unsplash

If you identify as a person with an insecure (i.e. anxious, avoidant, or fearful) attachment style and have decided to begin your healing journey, you’re going to encounter some challenging emotions. Change is never easy, even when it’s positive, and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, defeated, or just plan uncomfortable as you heal your attachment style.

Below, I’ve outlined three basic distress tolerance skills for coping with the challenging feelings that can arise along your healing journey. These skills are attributed to Dr. Marsha Linehan’s dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which is an evidence-based, cognitive behavioral therapy that combines behavioral science with concepts such as acceptance and mindfulness. DBT teaches several techniques for handling a crisis/difficult emotions/discomfort, and these distress tolerance skills can aid in accepting yourself and the current situation. Let’s dive in!

Radical acceptance. Becoming angry, critical, or upset about something can create more pain, cloud your ability to cope effectively, and, more often than not, doesn’t actually improve the situation. An alternative approach is to use mindfulness (which, by the way, is a foundational tool in DBT!) to acknowledge the present situation without judging it or yourself. Fighting the moment and thinking it should be different (a lot of people tend to turn to blame of self or others when distressed) only serves to make you feel worse. Keep in mind that radical acceptance is not about “just thinking positive” or being happy about a difficult situation, but accepting it in order to spare yourself additional suffering. Adapting a mantra such as “It’s no use fighting the past” or “I can accept the present moment, even if I don’t like it” may be helpful in cultivating a mindset of radical acceptance.

Eight Minutes to Calm: FREE Guided Mindfulness Meditation

Distraction. Distraction can be an especially useful skill if you tend to engage in self-destructive behaviors (ex: using substances, self-harming, mentally beating yourself up) when emotionally triggered. Stopping destructive behaviors is the first step, and the ultimate goal is to replace unhealthy coping behaviors with healthier ones. Begin today by creating your Distraction Plan: a list of alternative, pleasurable activities you can use when distressed. Check out The Big List of Pleasurable Activities for ideas, or create your own. And don’t wait until you’re upset to practice these pleasurable activities…integrate them into your life through daily practice!

Self-soothing. Grounding is the number one tool I use when teaching clients to self-soothe. Grounding comes from the Seeking Safety program by Dr. Lisa M. Najavits, and is a set of simple strategies to detach from emotional pain. Grounding anchors you tot he present moment and reality by refocusing you on attention on the external world instead of your internal distress. There are many different grounding approaches, but the easiest one is probably the 5-4-3-2-1 approach, which enables you to turn your attention to your external surroundings, using your five senses:

  • Name 5 things you can see (ex: “I see my desk, my cat sleeping in the corner, the yellow curtains, the overhead lamp, books on the shelf”)
  • Name 4 things you can touch (ex: “I feel my feet on the floor, the fabric of my shirt against my skin, I can touch the desk in front of me and the wall to my right”)
  • Name 3 things you can hear (ex: “I hear the heater in the other room, the sound of the freeway down the road, the birds chirping outside”)
  • Name 2 things you can smell (I often recommend that clients carry a scented lotion or favorite scent with them for this one)
  • Name 1 thing you can taste (for this one, it’s helpful to carry some mints, gum or sour candy…anything you that jolts your taste buds!)

The above distress tolerance techniques can prepare you for intense emotions and enable you to cope with them with them in a more positive, productive way. As with all skills, they require consistent practice, and the more you practice these skills when you’re not feeling distressed, the easier it will be to access them in moments of emotional discomfort. Which one(s) will you add to your practice today?

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This site is for informational purposes only. It isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any mental health problems and is not intended as psychological advice.
© 2022 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

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