Your “Say Yes to Life” Monday Motivator: Dealing with Distress

This Monday finds us kicking off week three of the New Year. For those of us who made New Year’s resolutions or intentions, this is the week when we may be starting to see cracks in our resolve, chips in our optimism, doubts where just a few days before, confidence was our daily companion.

Enter “distress tolerance”. This technical-sounding term comes courtesy of Dr. Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Distress tolerance is commonly defined as an ability to refrain from resorting to impulsive behaviors to manage strong emotions.

Picture this: you are at home minding your own business, when all of a sudden your friend calls with some very disturbing news. She starts to cry, and before you know it you are tearing up with her. Her emotions continue to spiral as crying turns to sobbing, and by the time you get off the phone all you can think of is that you need a glass of wine. One glass turns to one bottle….several hours later you wake up on the couch and realize you have forgotten to pick up your son from daycare. You are overcome with shame at your behaviors, followed by fear for your son’s wellbeing, and then a growing anger and frustration directed at yourself. Again.

Worst of all, the painful and sad emotion you drank the wine to avoid having to feel and deal with has come back tenfold – and this time it has returned with several of its best friends in tow.

In this hypothetical scenario, we can see a classic pattern of distress-avoidance emerging:

  1. A situation arose during the course of your normal day which triggered strong emotions
  2. You perceived the emotions as intolerable
  3. You impulsively turned to alcohol (other impulse decisions could include substance abuse, binging/purging, spending, etc.)
  4. You experienced a reliable and thus “trustworthy” short term payoff from your retreat to the impulsive behavior
  5. You ultimately emerged from your attempts to elude your own emotions feeling even more out of control than before

This is just one of many scenarios in which cultivating improved distress tolerance skills can literally save the day. With distress tolerance skills training, you can learn to manage, feel, and release strong emotions without resorting to destructive behaviors.

DBT’s distress tolerance skills are designed to build resilience in the face of intense emotions we perceive as intolerable. There are four core modules of distress tolerance skills-building that are carefully designed by Dr. Linehan to build in positive copings skills where self-destructive tendencies used to rush in.

However, distress tolerance does not in any way translate into distress avoidance, and it is important to recognize that building your skill at tolerating emotion still requires that you feel and deal appropriately with emotions as they enter your sphere of influence.  In this way, you can think of distress tolerance skills-building as the safety net you need to begin to learn how to feel and deal appropriately and self-respectfully without fearing your own destructive tendencies.

At Southlake Counseling, we have more than two decades of experience teaching and guiding individuals and groups in learning to implement the powerful principles and practices of DBT. We are the foremost provider of DBT-based individual and group services in the Lake Norman area, with a full range of services for females and males of all ages and from all backgrounds and walks of life. If you are determined not to greet one more New Year fearing what emotions each day may bring, contact us at for more information about how DBT can help you say “no” to distress avoidance and YES to distress tolerance – and your own wonderful LIFE!

Be Well,


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