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Do strong negative emotions like shame, anger or worry tilt you back toward drinking or drugs?

Do you use getting drunk or high as a tool to change your mood so you won’t have to deal with these types of feelings?

If so, consider improving your ‘distress tolerance’ skills - because with just a little practice you should notice a real improvement in your ability to handle uncomfortable feelings, without needing to get drunk or high.

Consider the definition of Distress Intolerance = You are unable to fully and calmly accept and experience negative or uncomfortable emotions and when these types of emotions arise you feel a strong need to escape them.1

If that definition hits close to home, here are three good reasons why you might want to take action to improve your distress tolerance skills:

1. As you are more able to experience negative emotions without feeling overwhelmed and without feeling as if you need to escape you’ll have less need to use alcohol or drugs to numb your feelings.

2. Trying to get away from experiencing negative emotions doesn’t work very well, in fact, it usually makes things worse. If you skip an after-work gathering because of nervousness you’ll probably feel even more nervous the next time you’re faced with a similar situation – if you use alcohol to reduce the shame you feel about losing your job you’ll probably feel even more shameful the next day…

3. Negative emotions are normal and healthy and if you try to block all negative emotions you end up missing a lot of the richness and texture of the human experience. How can you truly appreciate what you have when you don’t allow yourself to feel sadness and mourning at its loss? How can you find the motivation to change your life circumstances for the better if you won’t allow yourself to feel anger when mistreated? …

How to Improve Your Distress Tolerance Skills

As a starting point, try to accept the following 4 truths:

  1. Negative emotions are necessary and useful. They are also universal – everyone experiences these types of emotions
  2. No emotion is permanent or unchanging. Emotions tend to come and go like waves in the ocean, rising and falling in time. Sometimes it can feel like your rage or guilt or sadness will last forever, but it won’t.
  3. You can never hope to eliminate negative emotions and in most cases, trying to block these emotions exacerbates your problems
  4. Though you can’t block negative emotions, you can learn to experience these emotions without feeling such distress and without having to react impulsively

Three Steps to Experiencing Negative Emotions without Distress

So the key is accepting that you can’t stop uncomfortable emotions, and that even if you could you probably wouldn’t want to. From this point of acceptance, you can learn to change how negative emotions affect you.

Here’s a 3 step technique that should help you become better at riding through negative emotions without distress

  1. Get into the habit of watching your emotions in a non judgmental way
  2. When emotions arise, label them for what they are
  3. Use mental imagery to remind you of the transient nature of emotion

Step 1 – Keeping Non Judgmental Watch of Your Emotions

Before you can change how you react to difficult emotions you need to get into a habit and practice of paying attention to your emotions as they change.

  • To do this, try to imagine yourself as a third person who is observing neutrally. You are not involved with your emotions; you are simply watching them from above and you are not trying to alter their course in any way as they flow past.

Over time, as you practice this detached watching, you’ll gain a better understanding of how your emotions come and go, build and recede in intensity and shift and evolve into other emotions.

It’s important, in this first step, to avoid judging your feelings as either positive or negative. You are simply a curious outsider watching a stream of emotions flow slowly past.

Step 2 – Labeling Your Emotions

When you notice a new emotion enter your mind, try to identify and label it.

Labeling is a practice that can help you maintain awareness of and separation from your emotions

  • “This emotion is anger – I can feel it in my body too because my heart rate is up.”
  • "This is sadness that I’m feeling – it is making me feel physically tired.”

Not only does labeling help you in your practice of mindfulness, it also helps to enhance a feeling of separation between you and your emotions.

You label an emotion as anger and you know that though you are feeling anger at this moment it is only a transient emotion and you do not have to act on it or let it consume you…through this feeling of separation you learn to interpret your emotions as informative messages rather than commands that must be obeyed!

Step 3 – Make Use of Mental Imagery

  1. You don’t want to resort to negative coping mechanisms, like drinking, to deal with negative emotions.
  2. Before you can stop using negative coping mechanisms you need to believe that you can handle the experience of uncomfortable emotion
  3. One way to remind yourself that negative emotions will pass in time, that you are not your emotions and that you do not have to act upon an emotion is through mental imagery.

Examples of Mental Imagery:

  • Speeding Train - If you have a difficult time dealing with guilt from your past, try to imagine an express guilt train that passes every now and again. When you feel guilty, imagine there’s a miles long train of guilt thundering down the rails through your brain. You can’t stop a speeding train and you can’t change its course, so the best thing to do is just watch it thunder on past, taking the feelings of guilt away with it, in time
  • Tantrum Child - If anger’s something you struggle with, imagine your anger is like a child having a temper tantrum. If you try to stop it you often add fuel to the fire, so the best thing to do is just watch it from a safe distance, until it runs its course.
  • Ocean Wave - You can also imagine emotion as an unstoppable ocean wave. You can’t fight against the ocean, another wave’s always coming along behind, but if you let the wave go and just ride it out it will eventually crest and subside into nothingness.
  • Clouds in a Blue Sky – Your emotion is like a puffy cloud in the sky moving slowly past till it’s gone.

These are just a few common examples to try, but you may find something personal that works better for you – use your imagination!

Remember That Emotions Always Leave… But Sometimes They Come Back!

As you get used to using mental imagery to deal with difficult emotions you may find that though the practice helps you to ride through feelings you used to numb with drugs or alcohol, that these negative emotions have a tendency to come back, often quickly after leaving for the first time.

This is normal. There’s an ebb and flow to emotions and it’s normal to experience a comeback of negative emotion a few minutes or hours after watching it pass by for the first time.

Simply congratulate yourself for your good attention to have noticed this re-emergence and once again make use of mental imagery to let things run their natural course.2

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Page last updated 07/07/2015

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