#Askingforafriend: How can we practice distress tolerance?

July 29, 2020 / by / 0 Comment

By Lauren Dixon
GCU Office of Student Care

When confronted with distressing circumstances that induce physical and/or emotional discomfort, it is only natural for the mind and body to instinctively respond with some level of resistance.

Resistance occurs in response to uncomfortable feelings (that is, resistance is a separate thing from the emotions we resist against).

Metaphorically, resistance is like slamming on the brakes of your car as you enter a long, dark tunnel that you didn’t want to enter.

Resistance from the mind clings to thoughts like, “This should not be like this.”

We think, “This tunnel shouldn’t be here,” “There should be a way to exit immediately,” and “Someone should come and get me out of here.”

Resistance from the body is apparent when breath becomes more shallow, heart rate increases, muscles tense, irritability increases and, possibly, anxious sensations are felt in the chest and/or stomach.

The body prepares to flee the tunnel, to fight its way out of the tunnel or to freeze in place until help arrives.

Our mind and body seem to be doing their best to communicate a helpful message: “Being in this tunnel is uncomfortable. Get out of it right now so you can be comfortable again.”  

If a clear way out is available, then the resistance we experience is helpful and guides us out.

However, if there is no immediately accessible way out, we often find ourselves gridlocked in feelings of frustration, stress or hopelessness.

When we can’t change our circumstances, we either remain stuck in resistance, or we grieve that our circumstances aren’t what we want them to be and move forward in ways we hadn’t planned.

Holding our foot on the brake keeps our feelings of distress frozen in place as we resist them.

When the only way out of the tunnel is to keep moving through it, we need to relax the mind and the body to take the foot off the brake. We must tolerate the discomfort we feel about being in the tunnel as we gently apply pressure to the gas and start to inch our way forward.

When we shift our energy from the brakes to the gas, the tunnel does not change, nor does our distress about being in the tunnel. What changes is our willingness to tolerate the distress in order to keep moving forward.

For those courageous enough to feel their way through the tunnel, here are some helpful reminders for practicing distress tolerance:

  • Everything is temporary. While it’s hard to not know how long discomfort will last, we can remind ourselves that no feeling (pleasant or unpleasant) can last or stay the same intensity indefinitely. What we feel will heal.
  • Comfort is accessible. In the midst of distress, we can seek moments of solace in nature, in music, in quality time with loved ones, in a delicious meal and in deep breaths.
  • Self-care is essential. Get enough sleep, stay hydrated, feed your body well, prioritize daily hygiene practices, exercise, nurture your mind by learning new things and engage in activities that feel fulfilling and productive.

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