How to Tolerate Emotional Distress


As humans, we experience a whole bunch of different emotions like happiness, anger, sadness, and fear. Some of these emotions are pleasant while others may be incredibly uncomfortable and difficult to manage. 

Unfortunately, even though we don’t like these uncomfortable feelings, it happens to be a normal part of life. However, there is a difference between not wanting to feel uncomfortable but being able to accept it and move on versus experiencing unpleasant emotions and being unable to cope. Instead, you find yourself trying to push the negative thoughts and feelings away because they feel too unbearable to withstand. 

Have you ever found yourself making statements like “I can’t stand this feeling” or “I need this feeling to go away?” Instead of accepting the feeling and trying to cope, you try to escape, hide or ignore the feelings. If you can relate to this then chances are you’re experiencing something known as distress intolerance. 

There are several reasons behind the development of distress tolerance. Many factors are at play when looking at how someone has become incapable of tolerating distress including biology, genetics, family, and the environment. Perhaps there were times throughout your childhood that you were told not to feel sadness or fear because there was no reason for it, so you’ve been conditioned to avoid them at all costs. Maybe you experienced punishment every time you had a “negative emotion” and found it safer to avoid these feelings all together. 

However, regardless of how it happened, it is important to develop appropriate distress tolerance skills. Constantly trying to avoid conflict or stress without healthy coping patterns can lead to an unfulfilling life with a whole host of problems. 

Whether the circumstance is small like construction and traffic making you run late for a meeting or large like a layoff from a job or divorce, you will face many instances where there is simply not much that can be done. For these moments we turn to distress tolerance skills to make it through the intense emotions. Distress tolerance involves a person’s ability to manage emotional stress in a healthy and constructive manner.

In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), we offer many tools that can assist in distress tolerance. However, one of my absolute favorite skills that I use regularly is DBT: Improve. Improve is an acronym that stands for Imagery, Meaning, Prayer, Relaxation, One thing in the moment, Vacation, and Encouragement.


This can be done in a few ways. For one, you can envision yourself in a peaceful and safe place in your mind. When I am doing this, I love to put myself in the forest by a lake or river, where I imagine animals frolicking around me and I know I am feeling safe and serene. I just sit in that moment and breathe, allowing myself to regulate. You can also visualize the painful emotions flowing out of you. Imagine sitting by a river or stream and there are leaves flowing down. Let your emotions sit on the leaf and flow down the stream gently away from you.


Instead of dwelling on the pain caused by the situation, try to find meaning within it. Ask yourself, how can I grow from this experience? What can I learn? Take for instance being stuck in the house in a snowstorm when you had plans to go to a concert. Yeah, that really sucks and it may make you feel incredibly angry. But how can you make lemonade out of lemons? Perhaps this opportunity forced you to catch up on work you were procrastinating on. Maybe it was an opportunity for you to become closer with your family. By finding meaning, we are not denying that things may suck, but we are just trying to improve how we handle the moment. 


For some, prayer can be in the literal sense of praying to a higher being. Allowing that being to what is distressing you and offering comfort. However, prayer can come In any form that works for you. You can even pray to yourself for acceptance and tolerance of the moment. You surrender yourself to your strength and ask for guidance in handling this painful moment. 


Stress reduction and relaxation exercises are a great way to feel better in the moment. During moments of distress, we often become physically and emotionally tense. Relaxation techniques will change that and effectively calm our bodies and mind. Try taking a hot bath, go for a relaxing walk, engage in breathing exercises or mediation. 


When facing a crisis, it can be easy to ruminate in the past or worry about the future. By practicing mindfulness and staying in the moment we can reduce distress by giving our body and mind a chance to cool down and relax. Mindfulness exercises are a great way to be in the moment. YouTube is a great source for these exercises. My favorite one is called Leaves on a Stream.


In a perfect world, we would be able to pack up and leave our problems and go on a beautiful vacation. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t readily capable of doing this during a moment of crisis. Instead, you can try taking a vacation either in your mind by practicing imagery or take a “vacation” from whatever task is at hand. Shut your office door, take a nap, go for lunch in the park. Do something that offers a brief break from what you are doing. Now, this is within reason of course. Don’t “vacation” if it is going to harm you and cause more stress later. For instance, taking a mental health day when your job is relying on you for a crucial event or taking an extended lunch when you have an important assignment due right after. The purpose is a brief vacation to distance yourself from the distress so that you can return and do what you need to do.


Encouragement doesn’t have to come from others for it to be effective. Our mood can fluctuate based on the way we talk to ourselves. Engaging in negative self talk is likely to increase suffering and distress. However, providing ourselves with encouragement and positive affirmations like, “I can do this” or “I am strong and can handle whatever is thrown my way” can effectively promote a more positive mood. Write down these encouraging phrases for when the negative self talk starts to kick in. 

This is just one of many skills that can be developed for distress tolerance. Distress tolerance skills take practice and may need to be done several times for effectiveness. But the ability to tolerate distress can give you a sense of freedom that you may not have had before. 

If you are struggling with the ability to tolerate a crisis or distressing moments, a therapist at Puglisi Counseling can offer you guidance and support in learning and enhancing distress tolerance skills.

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