Distress Tolerance Series # 1 What the heck is distress tolerance?

Distress Tolerance Series # 1 What the heck is distress tolerance?

According to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Distress tolerance is the idea of getting through a crisis situation without making the situation worse. As discussed in my blog post on surviving a crisis , often when in crisis we end up doing things that inherently make the situation worse.

The ultimate goal of distress tolerance is to buy more time for ourselves to make a decision so that we do not make the situation worse by acting impulsively.

We have all been there, you know what I am talking about. I remember a time as a teenager that always exemplifies this perfectly. I was mad about something (who knows what) and threw my phone, leading to a cracked phone screen. Then of course, not only was I mad about what I was already mad about, but I was ALSO mad about my cracked phone screen. You can see how if you do not intervene, this cycle could just keep going indefinitely. This is the exact situation we are trying to avoid with distress tolerance skills.

Do you remember those “eat a Snickers” commercials, circa 2010? A person is hangry and not acting like themselves and someone steps in and offers them a Snickers bar, and then all of a sudden they are magically acting like themselves again. While distress tolerance is not a magical candy bar, the strategies will help you to take a step back, pause, and buy yourself the time to make a better decision (just like stopping to take a bite of a snickers would).

Distress refers to any situation that can be defined as a crisis, overwhelming, stressful, and where you feel an urge to do something about the situation immediately. These situations may differ from person to person. A crisis might be a breakup, forgetting to do your homework, or your car breaking down, or in our current times a global pandemic.

Tolerance refers to the ability to withstand something difficult. Tolerance does not mean that you want or like the situation, usually it means the opposite. For example, you tolerate your annoying coworker because you like your job. You may hate the situation with every fiber of your being and still chose to tolerate it because that is what the situation calls for. Tolerance requires first accepting the reality of the situation as it is, without trying to change it. You don’t have to fight with reality, and in fact things generally turn out better if you don’t. Remember, from the 5 ways to handle a crisis, if you can solve the problem, that is the best option, but in cases where you cannot, that is where distress tolerance comes in.

Distress tolerance is a SHORT TERM solution. It will not solve your problems, it will not fix things, and it may not even make you feel any better, but remember feeling better is not the goal. The only goal is DON’T MAKE THE SITUATION WORSE. If you use distress tolerance all of the time, it will get in the way of actually trying to solve problems or lead a meaningful life, thus it is to be used in the short term when needed.

Now that you understand the basics of distress tolerance, tune in to the next blogs in the series to learn how to do it!

Next up is the TIP skills!


*The above is adapted from Linehan, M., M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. Please see the full text for more resources*

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