How To Better Tolerate Emotional Pain


I have had a month of high stress and decreased tolerance to emotional discomfort. It happens. Especially when a lot of what stresses you out is outside of your control. There is a crisis brewing and I need to make sure my emotions are in check. A crisis is a highly emotionally charged situation where a solution is required yet it’s not always available.

Here are some ways in which you can make a crisis worse:

Yelling at someone

Using drugs or alcohol


Retail therapy using money you don’t have

Giving up on solving the crisis all together

Let’s talk about this last one for a moment. What happens when a solution is not possible at the moment? What happens when you are faced with something you can not control?

What happens is a phenomenon known as learned helplessness – when you feel you are not in control of your situation you will give up and accept it, no matter how painful. The idea that we would rather stay in a painful situation then make efforts to change it, is completely illogical. But then again, so is gambling.

So what CAN you do?

First, try to look at your situation from a fresh prospective. Even if you can’t control your situation, you can ALWAYS find something you can control. You can control how you view the problem, how you feel about it and what you choose to do. Even the absence of doing is a decision. You have choices.

If nothing else, choose to learn how to increase your distress tolerance – ability to tolerate emotional pain. 

Most people struggle in life not because they are stupid, or bad, or lazy. Most people suffer because they are literally incapable of tolerating distress. When emotional pain hits, they just can’t take it! I would even go so far as to say, this is a national epidemic. This is not for lack of trying. In fact, people will tell me they tolerate distress just fine. However the short-term avoidance or  numbing attempts, have significant, negative, long-term effects. We work very hard to avoid distress. When it naturally hits, we do all we can to numb it with fixes that range from food, bad company, drugs and alcohol, gambling, sex, shopping, etc. These behaviors get us in more trouble. The key to distress tolerance is accepting suffering as part of the human experience without judgment and with a true understanding of the transient nature of emotional states. Pain, just like joy is fleeting. It’s like a wave that you can ride out, knowing you will survive it. You will be in one piece and the world will too. You will not go crazy or die. You will survive.

Distress tolerance is a skill or a toolbox of skills rather. You can learn these skills and perfect them with practice. Here are some of the components:

1. Distractions


Talk to someone who isn’t in crisis

Engage in your favorite hobby

Watch a movie

Go to a park

Plant flowers

Help someone less fortunate then you

Bake cookies

Listen to someone else’s problems


Compare down “it could be worse”

Compare your situation to a time in the past you were in crisis and you got through it

Engage in the opposite emotion: If angry, watch a comedy. If sad, listen to upbeat music. If scared, watch someone daring

Imagine putting your problem on a shelf or in a safe

Sing song lyric to a song you don’t quite remember

Do the time tables to a number you have to calculate

Decide what profession everyone on the bus does

2. Self-Soothing with the five senses: Vision, Sound, Smell, Touch, Taste

Imagine decorating your next home

Listen to soothing music

Light a scented candle

Take a lush bubble bath

Cook your favorite childhood comfort food

3. IMPROVE the moment: Imagery, Meaning, Prayer, Relaxation, One thing at a time, Vacation, Encouragement

Imagine a place you feel happy, safe or relaxed like the beach, your favorite hike, the mountain

What can this mean? “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” “This too shall pass”

Connect with your religion or spiritual traditions

Go for a walk, go to a yoga or meditation class

Don’t worry about the future, don’t obsess on the past, focus on what’s happening RIGHT NOW

Take a break, turn your phone off, spend time alone

Be your own cheerleader “I can do it” “I have been through worse”

4. Pros and Cons

I’m making it worse by ________________

I’m tolerating distress by _________________

And of course, write on your blog 🙂

Don’t you feel better already?

Hold On To Yourself.

I’ve been thinking lately.

About holding on to oneself. When everything around you seems to spin, how can you possibly hold your ground? It turns out, David Schnarch was right on when he concluded that the four points of balance in a relationship come down to this: holding on to yourself. But aren’t we supposed to seek out our object of attachment, our partners to soothe and comfort us in trying times? Well maybe, just maybe, all we need is to hold on to ourselves and repeat the mantra “this too shall pass.”

I hear a lot of my clients talk about codependency, identify themselves as codependent on their partner and ask “Am I supposed to be with this person? We can’t possibly be right for each other, can we?” I tell them, they are asking the wrong question all along. The question should be “Can I grow through this relationship? Can I hold on and learn to soothe myself? Can I grow with this person and become better for me, them and everyone else?”

I’ve been thinking lately.

The root to most addictions is the opposite of holding on to oneself. Addictions may look different but they are all equivalent to finding a “filler” between now and death. Addictions, may they be to alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, relationships, shopping, food, they serve as fillers for loneliness, substitute for real or desired relationships, default to being alone, bored, insignificant, an antidote to our persistent, underlying sense of mortality.

I’ve been thinking lately.

The only way to be in relationships is to learn how to be alone. The only way to find meaning is by knowing loss and befriending the perpetual feeling of meaninglessness that comes with being a limited, imperfect human being.

I’ve been thinking lately.

The only way to survive is to learn to soothe oneself in a way that does not involve fillers, addictions, or mediocre relationships. In the modern age we live in, the only way to survive the privileged loneliness, nagging boredom and painful emptiness is to give to people less fortunate than us (or procreate), realize that self-reflection (including therapy) has it’s own limitations, acknowledge and accept our own mortality and insignificance and give of ourselves as much as we can to the little/big people and little/big causes we love. Otherwise, we are bound to become a socialized mess of self-centered human beings who are only concerned with soothing basic, mundane needs through “fillers”, bad relationships and addictions of all shapes and forms.

I asked my client today if they could think of one single thing they did ALONE that excited them, made their heart jump, made them feel alive and happy. They couldn’t think of one thing. That was me once. That’s still me on some level. I’ve come a long way. But I have a long ways to go. After all this time, I can honestly say I have not one, or two, or three things I do alone that raise me up. I have a whole list. I’ve traveled far but I have a long ways ahead. As I hike foreign woods, near bodies of water and get lost and found in hiking trails listening to my favorite tunes, I’m exhilarated in my lonesomeness. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.





There is a lot of talk around self-control especially in the field of addictions and emotion regulation (those go together for some reason).

The story sounds a little like this.

“I know this is a bad decision, I logically know this will crash and burn but I can’t help myself. I’m on a freight train and can’t get off”.

This applies to drugs, bad relationships, stupidity, impulsivity, anger, bad decisions, doing something without considering the consequences, selfishness, indulging, etc. The underlying belief is lack of self-control.

I have to disagree. There is significant irrational belief at play here, including false hope, unreasonable optimism and, most importantly the arrogance that comes with making a choice because you want to and not because you have no self-control. Namely, stubbornness. Or needing to learn the hard way.

Don’t get on that train.

Imagine you are standing tall with your feet firmly grounded on the platform watching the trains come and go. There is the sadness train. The alcohol train. The guy who rejected you train. The affair train. The sex train…fill in the blank. Once you get on it, you know exactly where it will take you and you will ride it all the way to the final station only to realize you have just wasted time and lost something along the way.

Loss is always present.

Trains come and go. Don’t get on that train. There is another one coming. I promise.

Unhappiness Comes Down To This


Self-abuse is deeply rooted in not believing you deserve any better. I see people who make really poor choices in personal relationships, friendships or otherwise. Heck, I have been one of those people. Emotionally abusive relationships, mediocre relationships, the ones where you put the other before yourself and end up tolerating way too much bullshit because you don’t know you deserve better. Eventually, these relationships will lead to one of two things. One, you will start to abuse yourself by drinking, drugging or whoring out when you don’t want to. Or you become depressed, bitter and jaded. Two, you become an angry, selfish, manipulative bastard who takes it out on others and is only concerned with his/her Ego. Either way, you are in trouble. Because at some point you will have to face unpleasant consequences and/or be forced to make a change.

Deep down you are petrified of being alone.

Loneliness is only unbearable when you crave outsides sources of affirmation, validation and reassurance that you are worth something, that you matter. That if you die tomorrow, your life would have meant something. We crave meaning but search for it in the wrong places/things/people. All this ends up confirming a nagging doubt that we are unlovable.

By choosing the wrong people you choose the loneliness that is inherent in addictions, self-abuse, anger or selfishness.  Logically you know this but you are too weak to face your fears, too attached, too scared, too comfortable.

The good news about your unhappiness being a choice is that you can make a different one.

Life Starts When You Stop.


I’m not a big fan of AA (for different reasons which I won’t list here) but I have to admit, I have learned a few things about myself, others and life in general from their bumper sticker style slogans. And I want to share some with you.

Live and let live.

This, too, shall pass.

More will be revealed.

No pain, no gain.

You will be amazed.

Let it begin with me.

Have a good day, unless of course you have made other plans.

It takes time.

When all else fails, follow directions.

Share your happiness.

Count your blessings.

Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.

The price for serenity and sanity is self-sacrifice.

You can’t give away what you don’t have.

Fear is the darkroom where negatives are developed.

Spirituality is the ability to get our minds off ourselves.

When your head begins to swell your mind stops growing.

Sorrow is looking back, worry is looking around.

Minds are like parachutes—-they won’t work unless they’re open.

If you turn it over and don’t let go of it, you will be upside down.

It isn’t the load that weighs us down——it’s the way we carry it.

You are not required to like it, you’re only required to DO it.

Time wasted in getting even can never be used in getting ahead.

You are exactly where you are supposed to be.

A drug is a drug is a drug.

Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth.

The road to resentment is paved with expectation.

Success means getting your BUT out of the way.

Analysis is paralysis.

Life starts when you stop.

We have a living problem, not a drinking problem.

Reality is for people who can’t handle drugs.

A winner is a loser who keeps trying.

Don’t try to clear away the wreckage of the future.

Stand by the coffee pots. It’s a good way to meet people.

Always remember the insanity…Be thankful for the pain…But most of all be thankful for the days that remain.

The A.A. Paradoxes:

From weakness(adversity)comes strength.

—We forgive to be forgiven.

—We give it away to keep it.

—We suffer to get well.

—We surrender to win.

—We die to live.

—From darkness comes light.

—From dependence we found independence

AA is starting to sound Buddhist. Aren’t we all in the business of recycling truths?

A Rosy Future.

Definition of insanity: doing the same exact thing over and over but expecting different results.

Contrary to popular belief, unhappiness doesn’t always come from being overly pessimistic about the future. Quite the contrary. Let me explain what I mean.

People are unhappy not because of one event, one mishap, one accident, one loss, one consequence, one mistake. People are unhappy because of self-destructive patterns. Patterns of thought, emotions and behaviors that appear to be repeating themselves, appear to be outside of one’s control, appear impossible to change. Self-destructive patterns are persistent because they provide us with something positive, they serve a purpose, they evoke good feelings, they help us cope. But they do so at the expense of our overall happiness. Changing these patterns can be extremely frustrating. Consider this conversation from a therapy session.

C: Why do I keep doing this knowing it will hurt?

T: Habit

C: But rationally I know where this will lead me. Why can’t I stop myself?

T: Unrealistic expectations. Habit.

C: It’s as if I forget about the hurt, I know it will hurt but I ignore that fact.

T: It sounds like you are overly optimistic.

C: ??

It turns out there is some scientific base to the idea that we see the future through rose-colored lenses if we use our memory. We remember the good AND we tend to predict positive outcomes regardless of past evidence from experience that point to the contrary. Some people will call this denial, namely I refuse to see negative consequence because I chose to do so. Science however seems to point toward a less voluntary process. Memory.

Research from Daniel Schacter at Harvard University calls this “remembering a rosy future”. When we imagine events in the future, our subsequent recall of negative simulations fades more rapidly than our recall of positive ones:

“We found that at the longer delay, details associated with negative simulations were more difficult to remember than details associated with positive or neutral simulations. We suggest that these effects reflect the influence of the fading-affect bias, whereby negative reactions fade more quickly than positive reactions, and that this influence results in a tendency to remember a rosy simulated future. We discuss implications of our findings for individuals with affective disorders, such as depression and anxiety. “

(Schacter, in the Harvard Psychology department, is a memory researcher and author of “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers)

Even more intriguing is the implication of longer delay. Does this mean, the more time passes, the more likely we are to forget about negative emotions and and focus on the positive ones?

Does this mean, that the more we disengage from a self-destructive pattern, the more likely we are to forget about the pain, remember pleasure and ultimately go back to it?

Is that why time heals everything and yet it doesn’t?

Can we then afford to base future decisions on our memory?

Understanding Relapse – The Danger Zone

Many people I work with have often been successful at maintaining some sort of long-term sobriety/abstinence from alcohol or drugs. If you participate in AA/NA, getting your one month chip is often described as exhilarating. There is a boost in self-confidence and hope in one’s ability to regain control of one’s life. But something happens after the one year chip. All of a sudden chips stop coming. You don’t get as much attention and support anymore as you did in the beginning.

All of a sudden you are “cured” and/or you are supposed to know how to do this on your own. How are you supposed to know when you’re in “the clear”? Are you ever? Addiction is a relapsing disease. This means relapse is part of recovery and instead of refusing to accept this fact, it is important to put more effort into understanding relapse, warning signals and ways to prevent it.

Here are some signals I have noticed:

Experiencing Withdrawal: You start having problems with one or more of the following; thinking difficulties, emotional overreaction problems, sleep disturbances, memory difficulties, sensitivity to stress, etc.

Avoidance and Defensive Behavior: You start avoiding people who you know will give honest feedback and/or you start becoming irritable and angry with them.

Being in denial: You stop telling others what you’re thinking/feeling and start trying to convince them (and yourself) that everything is all right, when in fact it is not.

Building crisis: You start to notice that ordinary, everyday problems become overwhelming often because you perceive them as insurmountable. Feeling stuck: You start believing that there is nowhere to turn. You feel trapped and sometimes refuse to problem-solve.

Becoming Depressed: You mourn the loss of alcohol/drug and you feel the sadness and grief. You naturally miss it. But you start to rationalize your future actions based on perceived inability to handle the sadness.

Urges and Cravings (Thinking About Drinking/Using): You start to think that alcohol/drug use is the only way to feel better. You start coming up with justifications to drink/use and convince yourself that using is the logical thing to do.

Turning to behavioral, non-substance addictions: You start using one or more of the following- food, sex, caffeine, nicotine, work, gambling, etc. often in an out of control fashion.

As you may notice the list above has much to do with where you are mentally more than anything else. I like to refer to this “psychological space” you get into right before a relapse as “the danger zone”. Many times you know you will relapse, you just ignore that fact and either convince yourself that using once won’t make a difference or you set yourself up to fail intentionally. This is often a sign of ambivalence or resisting change.

If you want to avoid relapse when you are in “the danger zone” you want to look out for a few things that may potentially make the situation worse.

Being in the presence of drugs or alcohol, drug or alcohol users, or places where you used or bought chemicals.

Feelings we perceive as negative, particularly anger; also sadness, loneliness, guilt, fear, and anxiety. Positive feelings that make you want to celebrate.


Getting high on any drug.

Physical pain.

Dwelling/fantasizing on getting high.

Suddenly having a lot of cash.

Using prescription drugs that can get you high even if you use them properly.

Believing that you no longer have to worry or loss of vigilance. A.k.a ‘I can use once” attitude.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And if you do happen to relapse, remember that relapse doesn’t happen because of who you are as person. What I mean by this is that there is no chronic “relapsers”, there is chronic relapse behavior patterns. Different choices lead to different results. Once the pain is gone away, we tend to forget it. Remember the pain and the hurt. Remind yourself why you decided to quit to begin with. Many people will say that if you “mentally” relapse you have already relapsed “so might as well get high”. This is not true. Wanting to get high is not the same thing as actually doing it.

What have you learned from your relapses that have been helpful?