Building Resilience: Practical Strategies for Improving Distress Tolerance Skills

distress tolerance

Building Resilience: Practical Strategies for Improving Distress Tolerance Skills


One of the key components of mental health is distress tolerance, which refers to our ability to withstand and manage difficult emotions and situations. Developing strong distress tolerance skills is crucial for managing stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues, and can have a significant impact on our overall quality of life. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of distress tolerance in more detail and provide practical tips and strategies for improving your distress tolerance skills.


Distress tolerance is the ability to withstand and cope with emotional distress, discomfort, and pain in a healthy and adaptive way. It is an important aspect of mental health and well-being, as everyone experiences stress and difficult emotions at some point in their lives.  Distress intolerance refers to the inability to cope with or tolerate distressing emotions, discomfort, and pain in a healthy and adaptive way.  Distress intolerance can lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms such as avoidance, self-harm, substance abuse, or impulsive behaviors. These behaviors may provide temporary relief from distress but can ultimately exacerbate the problem and lead to additional negative consequences.


Tolerating difficult emotions can be challenging for several reasons, including:


  1. The intensity of emotions: Emotions can be intense and overwhelming, making it difficult to manage or control them.
  2. The duration of emotions: Emotions can last for extended periods, which can be exhausting and draining.
  3. The unpredictability of emotions: Emotions can be unpredictable, and individuals may not know when they will arise or how intense they will be.
  4. The fear of experiencing emotions: Some individuals may fear experiencing difficult emotions and may avoid situations that trigger them.


In therapy, distress intolerance is often addressed through the development of distress tolerance skills, such as relaxation techniques, mindfulness, cognitive reframing, and problem-solving. These skills can help individuals learn to tolerate distressing emotions without resorting to harmful or maladaptive coping mechanisms.  Distress tolerance as a skillset is often addressed in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that focuses on helping individuals to better cope with difficult emotions, regulate their behavior, and improve their relationships with others.


As mentioned, distress tolerance skills can help individuals cope with these challenges by providing techniques and strategies for managing and regulating difficult emotions. For example, mindfulness can help individuals observe and accept their emotions without judgment, while relaxation techniques can help individuals calm their bodies and minds in the midst of intense emotions. Cognitive reframing can help individuals reframe negative thoughts and emotions in a more positive light, while problem-solving can help individuals find solutions to the source of their distress.


Here are some additional examples of distress tolerance skills that can be helpful in managing difficult emotions and situations:


  1. Self-soothing: This involves comforting yourself in ways that make you feel better. Examples of self-soothing activities include taking a warm bath, listening to music, or practicing deep breathing.
  2. Grounding: This involves using your senses to connect with the present moment. For example, you might focus on the feeling of your feet on the ground or the sound of birds outside.
  3. Distraction: This involves focusing your attention on something else to take your mind off of your distress. Examples of distractions include reading a book, watching a movie, or going for a walk.
  4. Coping ahead: This involves planning ahead for situations that may trigger distress and developing a plan for how to manage those situations.
  5. Radical acceptance: This involves accepting the reality of a situation that cannot be changed and letting go of resistance and judgment,

Being aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can help individuals identify and regulate their emotional responses to distressing situations.  It is important to improve distress tolerance skills because everyone experiences stress, difficult emotions, and challenging situations at some point in their lives. Distress tolerance skills can help individuals cope with these situations in a healthy and adaptive way, reducing the risk of developing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

Developing distress tolerance skills can also improve an individual’s overall quality of life by reducing the impact of stress and difficult emotions on their daily functioning. By learning to tolerate distress and regulate their emotions effectively, individuals can maintain a sense of hope and optimism and continue to pursue their goals and aspirations.

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