Building Distress Tolerance |

3 min read

In the fast-paced world we live in, stress and distress are seemingly inevitable. Developing distress tolerance is a helpful skill that can empower you to navigate challenging situations with resilience and emotional well-being.

Building tolerance is a process that requires baby steps to ensure you don’t unintentionally put yourself into a stressful state. Don’t move from step 1 to 2 until you feel you can get to a calm, present state.

Step 1: Mindfulness

The first step is to learn how to tune into yourself and recognize what is going on in your mind and body. A few times a day, find a quiet space and take a few moments to center yourself. Close your eyes and focus on your breath, allowing it to anchor you to the present moment. Take note of the thoughts and emotions that arise, and then refocus back to the present. Build this into a habit before moving to step 2.

William Fortunato/Pexels

William Fortunato/Pexels

Step 2a: Testing Tension

Once you are able to relax yourself through mindfulness, you can begin to safely practice being in distress. Think of something that gives you a mild-to-moderate level of distress (5 out of 10 in terms of acceptability). Now, physically manifest your emotional response by tensing your muscles. While sitting, fold your arms over your chest, creating tension in your shoulders, arms, and neck. Additionally, scrunch your face, furrow your brow, and adopt an irritated or angry expression, intensifying the physical manifestation of your distress. Hold onto these physical sensations for 1-2 minutes while focusing on the challenging situation you’re grappling with. This intentional act of embracing discomfort is a key element in distress tolerance training.

Step 2b: Release and Reset

Now, release the tension—consciously relax your body and facial muscles. Open your arms and rest your palms on your knees or chair armrests. Cultivate a slight smile (think the Mona Lisa or Buddha). This change in body posture, combined with the release of muscle tension, can trigger a shift in neurochemistry and brain activity.

Once you release that tension, bring the distressing event back to mind. Notice any thoughts or images that arise, allowing them to come and go without judgment. Assess whether the level of distress has changed. Is it still a 5 out of 10? The act of intentionally altering your body posture and muscle tension can play a significant role in modulating your emotional reactions.

Step 3: Repeat

Building distress tolerance is an ongoing process that requires commitment and practice. To reinforce distress tolerance, commit to practicing this exercise for 5-10 minutes daily over the course of a week. Through repetition, you’ll not only enhance your ability to tolerate distress but also strengthen your mind-body connection. By consciously creating the tension, you can begin to notice it when it happens unconsciously.

Remember, the journey to distress tolerance is unique for each person, and finding what works best for you is an essential part of the process. Even if you find that this doesn’t release your distress for the situation, the cumulative impact of regular mindfulness practice can contribute to overall emotional resilience. Experiment with different techniques to find what resonates best with you. By incorporating mindfulness exercises and intentional adjustments to body posture and muscle tension, you can cultivate a greater capacity to navigate life’s challenges with resilience.

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