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Blog > Learning to Tolerate Distress

Learning to Tolerate Distress

Jamie Thompson
| June 9, 2017

My world is falling apart and I don’t think I can make it through the day. I hate how I feel! I don’t want to feel this way and I’m ready to say screw it and call the dope man.

That was me on a daily basis when I was struggling to stay clean. Many times I would give in and call my dealer. Then I would feel even worse but it didn’t stop me from doing it again and again. When I was ready, willing to change, and ask for help, I wanted to know how to work through those hard times. The urge to give up and use was intense during my early recovery but I knew I could live a life without being controlled by my emotions.

Fear. Anger. Sadness. Disgust. Grief. Loneliness. These feelings can be felt with such intensity in a highly stressful situation. They can create severe pressure to solve the problem NOW!

I can be in the middle of a crisis and make things worse by acting out on my emotions and even worse, go get loaded and drunk. I don’t have to do that anymore.

I have learned the skill of “distress tolerance” through Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT). The goal of the skill is to survive my crisis without making things worse and to no longer be a slave to my urges and intense emotions. I can use distress tolerance when I’m feeling extreme grief that will take time to pass. I can use it when I feel my emotions taking control of my entire being, and when I am overstimulated and need to remain tactful.

The first tool: STOP.

Stop – don’t just react. I am aware that my emotions want to take control but instead, I am in control.

Take a moment to step back and to breath. I can excuse myself to take a break.

Observe and notice how my body feels inside and out. Notice what feelings and emotions am I experiencing. Observe what others are feeling and how they are reacting.

Proceed mindfully. I need to be sensitive to not only myself, but to the other person’s thoughts and feelings. I ask myself, “Will I make things worse if I take this action?”

The second tool: I first learned about in treatment and it was reinforced in my DBT classes. I can change my body chemistry by using TIP. This has been extremely helpful when I get angry.

Tip the temperature. I find the coldest water I can and either dip my face into it or splash it on my face for about 30 seconds. This is a fast way to calm down. It slows down the heart rate and causes the blood to go back to my brain and heart causing the “fight or flight” hormones to recede.

Intense exercise will help use up the energy surge in my body from the emotions. Even if it’s only for a short walk at work or running around the block at home, I do it.

Paced breathing. I become conscious of my breath and count to 5 when I breathe in and to 7 when I breathe out. I repeat this at least 5 times. If I lose count, I start over. I try to notice the tension and stress in my body when I’m breathing in and when I breathe out, I say to myself, “Let it go.”

The third tool: A self-soothing kit. I laughed at my therapist when she gave me this assignment but I was willing to give it a try. My task was to find something that appealed to each of my five senses.

For vision, I chose to purchase myself a greeting card. “Thinking of You.” In the card I wrote, “Because you are worth it. You can make it through whatever crisis you find yourself in.” Then I signed, “With Love, Jamie.” When I feel like my emotions are taking over I can sometimes automatically switch to a self-destruct mode and tell myself I can never be in control of my emotions. But, I can! This note helps me to remember that.

For the hearing aspect, I created a playlist of music that comforts me and aptly labeled it, “Self Sooth.”

For smell, I thought about smell good hand lotion, shampoo, opening the windows. I found an inhaler like a Vick’s inhaler. The smell of eucalyptus is very soothing to me. I still carry this in my pocket and it comes in handy when I am feeling really stressed. It reminds me to slow down and breath.

For the taste, well that is easy! Chocolate of course. I found small individually wrapped chocolates so I could keep myself from eating an entire chocolate cake! I also keep some of my favorite herbal teas around for a nice relaxing cup of tea.

For touch, I found a squishy green frog. I also find someone to hug… that always makes me feel better. And alas, I pet my dog.

It has been more than year since I completed the DBT training and I still to this day use the tools. I can quickly recognize when my emotions are taking over and the first statement I make to myself is, “Do not make things worse. Step back and breathe. My world is not falling apart and I can make it through this.” There are times that I royally screw up and toss the tools out the window. I show myself compassion, clean up the mess and try again next time. I am no angel but I am doing the very best that I can and that’s all I can ask of myself. The excuses I can come up with to get high in stressful situations are no longer valid. Today, I choose to work through problem that are only and always temporary so that I can continue living a beautiful life and giving back to others.

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