I had plenty of emotional crisis when I was younger. I was certainly emotionally reactive and would totally think with my emotions instead of with my head and boy did it get me into trouble. Instead of making the situation go smoothly, I would end up making the situation worse and for the life of me I could not figure out why.
You know what I am saying, we have all been in those situations. Think about a time when someone has pushed your buttons and you totally got angry, said some words that you did not mean and totally regretted it afterward. Yes, those moments. People would say “stop jumping down my throats”, a habit that for some reason I could not stop.
Then came along my training as a therapist and a therapeutic skill that would change my way of being so reactive. I started training as a dialectic behavior therapist (DBT) and in that world, we call what was occurring to me as having no distress tolerance. The goal of distress tolerance skills is to enable us to survive immediate crises without making things worse and to accept reality as it is, not what we want it to be.
Imagine this. Has anyone ever been on a cruise ship? Now picture yourself standing on the deck of the ship leaving the Caribbean islands heading north back to Florida. You are strolling along the promenade deck just breathing some fresh air, taking in the sights and trying to be mindful. All of a sudden you slip on a banana peel and fall overboard. Now, by the time you land in the water, become submerged and then rise back up to the surface, the cruise ship has moved quickly by you. In the far distance, you see another boat and it looks like it is heading your way. So think about what your urge would be? I know my urge would be to start panicking, flailing my arms around in the sea, screaming uncontrollably and all the while be thinking about what is swimming beneath me in the ocean.
Now, do not get me wrong I think my urges would totally be a normal reaction, but the result would be that I would most probably make the situation a lot worse by drowning because I am in a state of panic and not problem-solving the situation. This is what you need to understand about distress tolerance skills. It is not about making yourself feel better, it is about calming down and not making the situation worse. Once you calm down, by using your distress tolerance skills, then you can start brainstorming what needs to be done. It is all about survival at this point.
So what are some distress tolerance skills? One of my very favorites is to get yourself a bowl of cold water (not less than 50 degrees), hold your breath and place your face into the water. Sounds fun right. So what happens is this is called our dive reflex which is the tendency in humans, and other mammals, for the heart to slow down to a below-resting heart rate when the person is immersed in very cold water without oxygen. Warning though, people with heart issues please do not try this.
Another wonderful distress tolerance skill is any exercise for about 20 to 30 minutes which will have a rapid effect on your mood, decreasing negative mood and ruminative thoughts and increasing positive effects after exercising. Fun fact: anxiety decreases significantly if you get your heart rate to 70% of the maximum for your age.
Another great skill is the STOP skill. When you feel your emotions take control….stop. Do not react. Do not move a muscle. Just freeze. Then take a step back from the situation and breath. Breath as long as you need until you are back in control of the situation. Next observe what is happening around you and within you, who is involved and what are other people doing or saying. To make effective choices, it is important not to jump to conclusions. Instead, gather the relevant facts to understand what is going on. Finally, It is important to ask yourself; what do I want from this situation? What are my goals? What choices might make this situation better or worse? When we are calm, in control and have some information about what is going on, we are better prepared to deal with the situation effectively, without making it worse.