Distress Tolerance Coping Skills for When It's All Too Much

July 2, 2019 Megan Griffith

I typically use distress tolerance coping skills several times a week to get me through intense feelings that threaten to completely overwhelm me. In the past, I have tried to deny these feelings, as if I could will them away simply because I didn't like them, but I've recently learned that this approach can actually intensify distressing emotions. Now, I am learning to tolerate these emotions while they last, and encourage them to run their course through me. I'm realizing that even though this is uncomfortable and scary, it's typically quicker and less painful than trying to reject the emotions entirely. Everyone has different distress tolerance coping skills that work for them, but I thought I would share a couple of mine in the hopes that they might be helpful for others as well.

Distress Tolerance Coping Skills -- My Favorite Distractions

One coping skill used to tolerate distress is distraction. This isn't avoidance because you aren't denying the feeling, you're simply giving yourself time to separate from the distressing emotion. Many people, myself included, feel a lot of shame about their intense emotions. For me, this shame sends my brain into panic mode, and I am entirely incapable of processing anything while in this state of mind. When I distract myself, I give my brain time to relax and once I'm a bit calmer, I can process what I was feeling.

I have two main distraction distress tolerance coping skills: funny TV shows and game apps on my phone. These are both coping skills that offer mindless distractions that are engaging enough to bring me down to a calmer state of mind, but not so mindless that I just keep ruminating on whatever upset me. Funny TV shows are great because they have a plot and some jokes, but no drama to trigger more negative emotions. I also enjoy game apps that involve finding words or matching things because they require me to think just enough that I can be distracted from my thoughts, but not so much that I get frustrated.

My Favorite Self-Soothing Distress Tolerance Coping Skill

Another way to survive distressing emotions is by soothing yourself, though this is a lot easier said than done. In the past, I used to do the opposite: I would berate myself any time I got overwhelmed because I felt it was "pathetic" or "ridiculous" to struggle so much over my emotions. However, this is not helpful, and often only makes my distress worse. Now, I try to soothe myself instead, through speaking to my inner child.

For one reason or another, child-me thought that everyone hated her for her emotions. This led to a lot of shame and fear surrounding emotions, which has only made dealing with them more and more difficult over the years. So now, to help soothe myself, I speak as a caring adult to my inner child and tell her the things I think it would have been helpful to hear in my youth. I tell her that she is alright, that she is loved exactly as she is, and that these emotions are real and scary, and she has every right to be upset. This soothes an ancient ache inside me, and it makes me feel a little less alone in my distress.

What distress tolerance coping skills do you use the most?

APA Reference
Griffith, M. (2019, July 2). Distress Tolerance Coping Skills for When It's All Too Much, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 20 from

Author: Megan Griffith

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Donna Gondek
July, 5 2019 at 8:42 pm

I don't have any...glad I found this. I will need to read it a few times to have it sink in.

Lizanne Corbit
July, 2 2019 at 9:25 pm

I absolutely love this differentiation and awareness! "This isn't avoidance because you aren't denying the feeling, you're simply giving yourself time to separate from the distressing emotion." I love how I say you are giving yourself time to separate. That moment of pressing pause, giving yourself time and space to distance yourself from the emotion so that you can observe it rather than be taking in by it. Beautiful.

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