Anxiety and Stress Management Blog Series: Enhancing Distress Tolerance

Welcome to another blog within our Anxiety and Stress Management Blog Series. I wanted to share some ways that we can think about tolerating distress and overwhelming negative emotions when they arise.


So many of us can likely relate to the idea of our emotions boiling over and that feeling like “I just can’t take it anymore!” and then suddenly losing your usual state of mind. You might then find yourself screaming at your loved ones, crying uncontrollably or hurling objects across the room. Never? C’mon, we have all been there before! What is often so challenging in these states is that we often feel like we don’t get a moment to stop the wave of emotions. We are washed away by them or, better yet, swept up in them, and we become a different version of ourselves. Often a version that we don’t enjoy nor do those around us.



We often think of these states as times when our emotions become dysregulated. We have lost our normal emotional homeostasis or balance. Our resting state of emotional peace has left us. In its wake is a monster of emotions that has taken over us and propelled us into behavioural states that we often do not feel proud of.


In order to calm ourselves down in these heightened states of emotion, we generally need to turn to strategies that can “take the edge off” the emotional intensity we are feeling. These might not be long lasting solutions. But they are critical strategies that provide us with an opportunity to bring ourselves down to our “emotional baseline” and allow us to then make different choices for ourselves and towards others.


...in these heightened states of emotion, we generally need to turn to strategies that can “take the edge off” the emotional intensity we are feeling.

We call these distress tolerance strategies. These strategies allow us to take our internal temperature down. We can then re-enter the situation with more resilience and an ability to handle the situation in a more effective way.


Distress tolerance strategies are often most effective when they involve a dramatic change in our sensory experience. These are often used for calming down the most intense of emotions. For example, splashing cold water on our faces, running up and down the stairs, jumping jacks, opening a window for a blast of cold air (if the temperature is cooperating!), eating a lemon (sour but grounding!) or rubbing an ice cube on your arm. Individuals might also engage with strong smells, eat a sour candy or engage in another intense sensory altering experience. These strategies allow for an immediate type of grounding from the emotional intensity of the tidal wave. But engaging in strong and intense sensory experiences we allow our minds to shift out of the emotional intensity momentarily. This temporary shift opens up an opportunity to make a different choice. Instead of being swept up in the emotional storm, we are riding the wave and making our own choices. Once we are back down to our emotional baseline, we can then make better decisions for how we want to handle the situation that caused us our initial escalation. We often talk about “riding the emotional wave” and this is what distress tolerance skills offers us the opportunity to do.


Once we are back down to our emotional baseline, we can then make better decisions for how we want to handle the situation that caused us our initial escalation.

Distress tolerance strategies can help people when dealing with intense anxiety and various other intense emotional experiences. It is but one of many strategies used within Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) Skills. If you want to learn more about DBT and other strategies for anxiety and stress management, come and join us at come and join us at Forward Thinking Psychological Services for our NEW Anxiety and Stress Management Workshop as well as other therapy services!