Tolerating Distress: Tips for Managing Your Emotions During a Crisis

We all face moments in life when a crisis hits. The distress feels intolerable, emotions run high, and there is no apparent way to make thingsdistress tolerance
better. These moments can be extremely stressful.  They are typically short-lived, but very overwhelming. During times of crisis, it is important to develop survival strategies to help you navigate the emotional storm. Dr. Marsha Linehan, Professor, and researcher of behavior therapy at the University of Washington, explains that there are two main rules to crisis survival:

  • When there is an immediate solution to the problem, solve it;
  • When there isn’t an immediate solution to the problem, survive it.

Having the right tools for distress tolerance is integral to survive the situation and avoid making the problem worse when difficult situations present themselves. The distress tolerance skills presented here originate from, DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which combines cognitive and behavioral therapy with other practices, including mindfulness-based techniques. The purpose of these techniques is not to take the emotions away, but rather, to help you make them less intense so that you can move forward.

Two skill sets to help you navigate distress

Refocus your thoughts to regulate intense emotions

The first distress tolerance skill set enables you to DISTRACT yourself when a crisis hits. This may be familiar because many of us use distractions to take our minds off of things we don’t want to deal with.

Distraction is a learned skill that you can tap into by doing a number of things:

  1. Activities like engaging in exercise or hobbies, going to an event, calling or visiting a friend, playing a game you love, any activity that requires your attention so that it isn’t focused on the crisis.
  2. You can contribute to someone or something through volunteer work, surprise someone you care about, do something thoughtful for someone else, or give something to someone else. By contributing, you distract yourself from your pain by making something for someone else better. Good deeds feel good, therefore doing something good for someone else when you are feeling bad may, in turn, help you feel better.
  3. Put a little bit of context to your situation by comparing yourself to people coping the same as you or less well than you. You can also compare yourself to a situation that is worse than the crisis you are experiencing to help you get to a state where you appreciate some aspect of your situation, either for the way in which you are dealing with it or by appreciating the fact that it could be worse.
  4. Another distraction tool is to engage emotions opposite to the ones you are currently feeling in response to the crisis. You can read books or stories, watch a funny movie or listen to emotional music (comedies, uplifting music, inspiring stories).
  5. Similarly, push away from the crisis by leaving the situation mentally. Block the situation in your mind and refuse to think about it for a while so that you avoid ruminating for extended periods of time.  Put your pain on a shelf, so to speak, to help you to deal with it when the time is right and the situation is resolvable. Ruminating over something that cannot be solved in the short-term will lead to stress and anxiety.
  6. Engage other thoughts, like count to 10, work on a puzzle or a distracting game, watch TV, or read. Any of these can take your mind off of your current thoughts.
  7. Finally, experience intense sensations that can help you distract yourself from the situation. Many people use stress balls to help squeeze their stress away. You can try taking a hot or cold shower, listen to loud music, or hold ice in your hand. These are all quick ways to distract from what you are currently feeling and help you move forward past the crisis.

The seven distress tolerance strategies above combine to make the term ACCEPTS, which Dr. Linehan uses the phrase, Wise Mind ACCEPTS. Remembering this phrase will help you to recall these distraction tools the next time you encounter a crisis that you can’t resolve immediately. They will get you through the difficult moment, and help you survive it.

Engage your senses to comfort yourself

The purpose of the distress tolerance second skill set is to take care of yourself, or SELF-SOOTHE. These five strategies will help you to feel better and take control of your feelings by engaging your senses. By focusing on your senses, you can comfort and calm yourself, feel relaxation and pleasure.

Give yourself time to practice these strategies so that you become more efficient at using them to control your emotions.

  1. Vision. Be mindful of the sights around you and in front of you. You can go to a beautiful place like a park and take notice of the nature around you. Go to a museum and look at art, visit a garden, or take notice of the beautiful leaves in the fall or the snowflakes in the winter. The point is to notice beauty in the environment.
  2. Hearing. Be mindful of the sounds around you, processing them one at a time. Listen to beautiful or soothing music, use apps on your phone to listen to nature sounds or go for a walk and take notice of the sounds of the city or sounds of the park. Sing a song or play an instrument. Call someone to hear another person’s voice.
  3. Smell. Pay close attention to the smells of your environment. Take deep breaths as you smell flowers or food cooking in the kitchen. Light a scented candle or burn incense or scented oils. Bake cookies or bread and take the time to enjoy their smell.
  4. Taste. Choose something that you really enjoy eating and chew it slowly, paying close attention to the taste of it. Have a good meal or have your favorite tea or soothing drink (avoid alcohol). Sample new flavors of things like iced cream or candy. Really taste all of the food you eat.
  5. Touch. Fully experience everything you are touching. Take notice of how it feels to hug someone, pet your dog or cat, or sit in a really comfortable chair. Take a warm bubble bath, or have a massage by a massage therapist. Put on comfortable clothing and enjoy how it feels to be wrapped up in a blanket on the couch.

Whichever sense(s) you choose to activate, do it mindfully. Keep your breathing deep and gentle, and focus on the sense and nothing else. Try to reduce the possibility of distractions like cell phones ringing or beeping. Choose a place where others can’t interrupt you. With practice, you will become more and more effective at reducing your stress and controlling your emotions using these strategies.

Written by: Mayte Parada, Ph.D., Psychology, Montreal Therapy Centre



Linehan, M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. The Guilford Press.

Linehan, M. (2014). DBT skills training manual, second edition. The Guildford Press.