The last post talked about why it can be useful to directly address your distress rather than avoiding it or trying to fix the thing that brings the distress up. I think there are a lot of good reasons, but the most important one for me is that it is just not very effective to try to solve problems when very distressed. It is also very exhausting to be constantly avoiding your emotions, so allowing yourself to acknowledge the distress, and find ways to manage it is really important. Here are my top 5 techniques:
1. Take a break
There are a lot of ways to manage your distress, but the most important starting point is likely to be taking a break of at least 15 minutes – whether that is from a conflict, an interpersonal dispute, a tricky situation or some ruminating that is upsetting you. Just allowing yourself to step away from the precipitating event is giving yourself a gift, and if there is another person involved it is also giving them a gift (though they are unlikely to feel that way at the time). If you’re in a conflict with a loved one it is often useful to agree when you’re going to resume talking about it. If it is a difficult situation, it can be useful to set aside some future time to think about it when you have put yourself in the best possible emotional space.
My go-to second step is to find some way to get water involved. It could be a shower, a swim, a drink or — my favourite — putting my head in cold water for 30 seconds. As a teenager, I played a lot of team sports, and one of the things I was often told to do when I got injured (which happened a lot) was to put my face in cold water. I’d almost entirely forgotten the advice and assumed it only worked for physical pain until I trained in DBT. One of the distress tolerance skills that I has surprised me involves putting my face in a bowl of cold water and holding my breath for 30 seconds. It rapidly reduces blood pressure and heart rate and physiologically changes your body to reduce distress. It works amazingly well for me for physical and emotional pain – and a lot of my clients are converts too. It is one of those things that sounds too weird to be true, but I’d recommend trying it before you knock it (unless you have a heart condition, in which case don’t try it). One caveat is that this only works briefly – if you do it and then go back to thinking about the upsetting thing you are going to get upset again.
The next useful thing to do is a grounding exercise. Here is one I’ve written about in a past post. Grounding exercises help you to remember where and when you are, that you can have comfort in your body and that you can be OK even if you are distressed. They are about taking a moment away from the thoughts that are buzzing around in your head, to attend to something with your body. It works because it reminds your body that you are safe, even if your emotions feel overwhelming at the time. This sense of safety can be reinforced by creating your own grounding ritual, and practicing it when you’re not upset. In the winter I have a warm blanket that I love to touch (which connects me to being loved, because a partner suggested heated blankets might be comforting for me), a scent that is an essential oil blend of patchouli, black pepper and citrus and a music list that is just soothing music. Just moving my focus to those things helps me to calm down a tiny bit. For you, it may be a different mix of sight, sound, touch, taste and hearing, but it is useful to have the things you need for your own ritual in the spaces you frequent. If you don’t have access to your own ritual, going through the exercise I’ve linked also works because it reminds you that there is something happening in the world other than your emotions. One important thing here is that you aren’t trying to suppress your emotion by doing this. You can still have the emotion and also do things to be safe and comfortable in your body. This isn’t about pushing anything away or suppressing anything, it is about gently turning your attention towards comfort and being grounded.
4. Get creative
At this point, I usually find a free-writing exercise very useful. It helps me to get out all the words that are floating around my head. Writing everything down, especially if I do it on 750words.com (because it gives me instant feedback on my writing) is wonderful for me, but painting, baking or some other creative endeavour might be better for someone else.
5. Intense distraction
If you’re still scattered and can’t think straight enough to do something like this, then distracting yourself might be useful. While distraction is often overused to avoid lower level emotions, it is an important tool when it comes to working with the most intense and distressing ones. It is usually helpful to distract with something very intense – as intense as the emotion you’re trying to distract from. So, if you’re feeling shame or anger, then a horror movie or video game might be just the thing to scare you into a different emotional experience. The goal here isn’t to try to make everything better, it is to move your attention away from the emotion that you’re trying to calm down.
While nearly all of us have plenty of practice with distraction, other distress tolerance skills need to be practised a lot before they become second nature. It can help to find someone to practice with – or to hold you accountable for your practice of these. None of these options will completely zero out your distress – but it can help to reflect later on what worked and what you might want to practice some more. Remember, you’re not looking for perfection, you’re looking for a little improvement.
These tools are to help you to reduce your distress so that you are able to engage more wisely and effectively with the situations that cause you intense emotions. They are skills to use when you’re in an emotional crisis to be kind to yourself and give your body experiences of having comfort while you’re having emotions. They won’t help you to solve any of your emotional or life problems. That is what being with feelings and problem solving are for. Nevertheless, having these tools can help you to reduce your distress so that you can find the right emotional space to deal with what is happening in your life.
If you are interested in learning a lot more distress tolerance techniques from me, you can find details of my next course here.