So, why would you want to learn to tolerate discomfort? Why not just try to make it go away? Logically, the strategy of experiential avoidance—an attempt to suppress unwanted internal experiences—might make sense. But this typically doesn’t have the desired outcome of eliminating the discomfort because:
- Your brain is hardwired to respond to negative experiences and potential threats (after all, this has enabled the human species to survive and evolve).
- Attempting to avoid uncomfortable internal experiences paradoxically sends your brain the message that these unwanted thoughts, feelings and/or physical sensations are, indeed, important and should, therefore, be heeded. (In fact, suppression leads to increased frequency/intensity of unwanted internal experiences. This experiment by Daniel Wegner, Ph.D., illustrates this point.)
- The maladaptive coping mechanisms that are often used to manage internal discomfort (drugs, alcohol, overeating, overspending, lashing out in anger, etc.) only tend to compound the problem by adding external challenges like relationship issues, bankruptcies and so on
Now that you have a better understanding of why avoiding internal distress doesn’t work, let’s talk about how to practice managing it instead. The two techniques below are taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), an approach that helps people who experience intense emotions.
Grounding helps shift your focus to the present moment. Practice the following steps for approximately five minutes each:
- Objectively describe what you see. For example, “The room is bright and the sun is shining outside of the window. There are shadows on the floor.”)
- Practice breathing and noticing how your body feels during each inhale and exhale.
- Mindfully observe your body. How does your body feel as it makes contact with the chair? Are there certain areas of your body that feel tense? How do your feet feel as they are touching the floor?
- Engage your other senses. Is there an odor you notice? What sounds are you hearing?
The three steps in Actions Based on Values can make distress more tolerable by emphasizing behaviors/choices that are aligned with what matters most to you:
- Begin by choosing the values from this list that are most important to you.
- Explore why each of these values matters to you right now by filling in this worksheet.
- Turn values into action by determining exactly what you would want to do if you were living according to these values. Remember to be specific and realistic.
These are just two of many distress tolerance techniques. Click here to learn even more from the DBT website!
If you’re looking for help managing overwhelming emotions, contact Travco Behavioral Health today!