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What is Distress Tolerance?

Distress tolerance describes an individual’s ability to manage their internal emotional state in response to stress-inducing factors. Almost everyone experiences extreme emotional states at various stages of their life, but some people struggle with overwhelming or uncontrollable feelings on a regular basis. Fortunately, there are several therapeutic strategies that individuals can pursue on their own or with the aid of a professional in a clinical setting. Psychologists also help patients build distress tolerance skills as part of a broader application of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

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Significance for Patients

Frequent periods of severe emotional distress can be crippling on many different levels. Unmitigated stress can damage social relationships, decrease work performance and lower overall quality of life. Distress tolerance is a priority in situations where the stress factor can’t be practically avoided, as the individual has no realistic means of escaping their negative feelings. Building these skills is also particularly important for patients who suffer from any kind of mental illness, and it can be life-saving for those at risk of self-harm.

Common Practices and Strategies

The fundamentals of distress tolerance revolve around becoming more aware of the internal emotional state and how it affects current thoughts or actions. Controlled breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation are just a few exercises that help patients achieve a calm and self-aware mentality. Tolerance skills also include developing a positive identity and manage negative emotions that are directed inwardly, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Some people also incorporate tangible objects or physical actions into their routine to emphasize their commitment. Indulging in a small snack or listening to a favorite song are just a few options for self-soothing in response to intense negative emotion.

Embracing Radical Acceptance

Many distress tolerance strategies also encourage patients to embrace the idea of radical acceptance. This concept applies to situations where the source of the painful or crippling emotions can’t be avoided, so the person has to learn to accept them. Rather than avoiding the source of their pain, patients need to learn how to confront it and slowly change the way they feel about it over time. Radical acceptance typically takes place in several stages to ease patients towards a state where they can accept reality and have control over their reactions to it.

Application in Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Many clinical psychologists help patients learn how to tolerate sources of distress through a DBT program. Like many other psychological practices, programs are patient-oriented and are developed around the specific needs of each individual. In general, therapy is designed to help the patient regulate their emotions, worry less and tolerate ongoing sources of stress. Therapy also helps patients build social skills to help them create more positive relationships and situations for themselves in the future.

There are dozens of different tips, tactic, and therapies that can provide relief from frequent periods of extreme emotional distress. Every case is defined by different circumstances, so personalized solutions are fundamental to long-term improvement. It may take time to build distress tolerance skills, but this accomplishment can lead to tangible and lasting improvement in quality of life.