How To Better Tolerate Emotional Pain


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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

Overeating

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

Exercise

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

Volunteer

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?