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How to Manage Emotional Distress

Posted by admin 4:01 am, 16 May 2020

Life can be tough. Whether your distress relates to a stressful or traumatic event or is there despite most areas of your life going well, many people experience significant levels of distress resulting in a sense of hopelessness and overwhelm.

Most often, at the time of significant distress, your feelings and the situation is not in your direct control. Radical acceptance works towards acceptance that the situation is what it is and at least has elements that are outside of your control. Life isn’t always fair and sometimes doesn’t make sense. Radical acceptance works towards managing distress through acceptance and self care and soothe strategies.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) provides a comprehensive treatment program for managing distress, emotion regulation and interpersonal relationships. It has been found to be effective in the management of many severe presentations including self-harm, addiction and severe depression. Some strategies for distress tolerance include:

Distract Yourself
While as psychologists we do not usually promote avoidance, distraction is helpful when you are feeling distressed to prioritise self-care and working through the difficult emotion. Once calm you can re-engage with the problem to work towards a solution. Distract yourself by engaging in another activity such as art work, watching a tv program, go out of the house for a walk, having a shower, going for a swim, applying cold water or ice to the body to distract yourself from the emotional pain (particularly useful in severe distress)

Soothe your distress through mindfully connecting to your senses. This can include activities such as watching the sunset, star gazing, lighting a candle, listening to music, eating your favourite food, applying a scented body cream, patting your dog or cat.

Seek Support
When distressed, support is helpful to reassure you that you are not alone. It doesn’t need to involve conversation or problem solving but rather the support person being present with you while you work through the distress. Sometimes just sitting beside you quietly will be enough for you to not feel alone with your emotions.

The Half Smile
Making your lips smile and relaxing the muscles around your face promotes a sense of calm and suggests openness to accepting the situation, not sarcastically but peacefully with intention to support yourself through the distress.

Improve the Moment
Engaging in an activity with intention of improving the moment creates opportunity for reducing distress and increasing positivity and calmness emotionally and cognitively. This can be done through imagery and visualisation, prayer, relaxation and focusing on one thing in the moment.

Pros and Cons
Make a list of the reasons for and against making it through the distressing moment. Seek to identify what you stand to lose or benefit from making it through this time. While self harm and other unhelpful behaviours seem like the only option, they rarely have medium to long term benefits and only increase suffering long term.

Distress typically presents in waves of 20-30 minutes. After riding through the wave of distress with the strategies above the next step is to problem solve around further strategies that can help move you towards feeling better and talking to others about what is going on and process the situation with them.

Dr Michelle Pritchard
Clinical Psychologist