Distress Tolerance Skills Useful for Crises

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Everyone has times in their life when it seems difficult or impossible to change or manage a situation. What is considered a crisis to one person may be manageable to another.

Standing in a long line in the supermarket, being stuck in traffic or having a fight with a spouse or friend may be considered a crisis. Where having chronic health problems, losing your job or making health care decisions for a loved one may be a crisis to another.

All types of crises are good times to use what are known as distress tolerance skills, which will help you manage your emotions. These skills are used to help individuals cope and survive during a crisis and to tolerate short-term or long-term physical and/or emotional pain.

There are a number of distress tolerance skills that may be helpful to use during difficult crisis situations. The first skill involves using temperature. It is not unusual to feel hot when you are upset or anxious. To reduce your body’s temperature, you can use various forms of cold temperature. This can include:

  1. Splashing cold water on your face
  2. Holding an ice cube on your face or under your chin
  3. Blowing air conditioning or a fan on your face

Another way to reduce distress is to engage in exercise. You can choose the exercise that is best for you. The more intense the exercise, the greater the chance that you will feel more in control of the situation.

A fast run or a walk would be good choices. In the summer, you could jump in the pool and then swim a few laps. If you like to shop, walk around the mall intensely a few times.

A technique known as paired muscle relaxation has proven helpful during difficult situations. This involves tightening and relaxing muscles in your body.

Start at the top of your body. First tighten your jaw and then relax it. Then tighten your fists and relax them. Tighten your stomach and relax it. Tighten your legs and relax them and then tighten your feet and relax them. The rationale for this exercise is that relaxed muscles require less oxygen, resulting in a slower heartbeat.

Engaging in activities is important during crises or difficult situations. Doing activities helps distract your mind and concentrate less on the stressful situation. You can call a friend, read a book, watch a movie, take a walk, cook a meal or listen to music.

It is also helpful to contribute to the welfare of others. You could help a friend, neighbor or family member or get involved with volunteer work. It has been proven that helping others has the added benefit of distracting us while reducing stress.

There are activities that help us from concentrating on stressful or crisis situations. We can:

  1. Practice meditation or deep breathing.
  2. Use our phones and look at images that make us happy. Some people like looking at cute puppies or kittens, while others like viewing beach scenes.
  3. Some people prefer to push the problem out of their mind or not deal with it for a temporary time period. Sometimes we need a break before we can tackle a problem.
  4. Using mindfulness coloring books or doing sudoku puzzles, crosswords or a colorful jigsaw puzzle may be helpful.
  5. You may prefer to simply relax during a crisis situation. For some, this may involve taking a hot bath or shower, while for others this may involve listening to rap or rock music.

Choose the technique during a crisis or stressful situation that is best for you. One technique may be effective during one situation, while another may be better during another time. Experimenting with different techniques is helpful.

It is important for you to take an active role during a crisis so that you can reduce the stress and make rational decisions.

Marcy Shoemaker is a staff psychologist at Abramson Center.


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