Distress Tolerance: Top Six Tips

Dealing with both our inner world (such as all of our thoughts and feelings) and those of the outer world (such as work/school/social demands and expectations or facing a crisis and related life disruptions due to economic fallout, financial problems, widespread illness… and the list goes on) can be a daunting and overwhelming juggling act. First, know that validating your feelings is key. Self-statements such as “It’s okay that I feel this way”; “It makes sense that I feel this way”; or “I’m just having a hard time right now” are important messages. Second, remind yourself to focus on what’s in your control. While we have less control over the external sources of our distress and may not be able to change things happening in the environment we face daily, what we have control over is how we handle our thoughts and feelings. Learning, practicing, and applying effective ways to tolerate, handle and cope with overwhelming situations is critical. So, in that regard below are six distress tolerance tips that improve emotional resiliency, prevent emotions from taking over, help increase stress tolerance, and keep you in the driver’s seat (or in control) when faced with situations that feel out of control. 

  • Mindset matters! Avoid fixed, rigid and glass half-empty thinking and aim for growth, positive mindset which includes “This too shall pass”; “I am tough enough”; and “challenges help me grow.” 
  • Acknowledge and observe your emotions versus suppressing, blocking or pushing them away. This is best done if you think of any given emotion as a wave and visualize it as coming and going or view your emotion as a cloud that is floating and moving through your mind. As such, the negative emotions you are experiencing are NOT permanent and will go away. So, avoid getting or feeling stuck with an emotion.
  • Notice your feeling without judgement. Practice silently and kindly acknowledging your feeling by naming it (e.g., “I’m noticing anxiety; “I’m having a feeling of sadness,” etc.) AND ask yourself, “Why is this feeling visiting me and what is it trying to tell me?” So, practice accepting your emotions.  
  • Distract yourself by doing a healthy activity you enjoy that gets your mind off a problem or emotion (e.g., drawing, cooking, watching a movie, spending time outdoors, playing a game, hanging out with a friend, exercise, etc.). Over-focusing on your sources of distress can be mentally and physically exhausting, so give yourself permission to step away and take a brief break from your emotional state of mind.
  • Self-soothe by engaging your five senses. Think about what is soothing to you and has helped you feel better in the past. Some ideas include, looking at a peaceful or beautiful image; listening to your favorite music or soothing rhythms; smelling your favorite lotion, soap, or essential oil; tasting a favorite flavor (whether it be a specific type of food, cup of hot chocolate/tea or chewing your favorite gum); and finally to engage the sense of touch you can take a warm bubble bath, pet your dog or cat, or ask for a hug.  
  • Partake in yoga and/or mindfulness meditation practices. These can be done solo, as part of a group/class or as a family. These practices have consistently been proven to increase emotional resiliency and provide stress relief. 


Maria Kanakos, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist