How to Use This Simple DBT Distress Tolerance Skill

Distress Tolerance

How to Use This Simple DBT Distress Tolerance Skill

Life is filled with uncomfortable moments. These situations vary in intensity, from something less extreme—like noticing our phone battery is dying or sitting in traffic, to going through a breakup or losing a loved one—everyone experiences emotional discomfort at one point or another.

Distress tolerance is our ability to manage the emotional suffering that arises from these situations. Oftentimes, we are unable to solve the problem immediately and the best thing we can do is get through the emotional incident without making it worse.

People vary in their ability to tolerate distress—someone with low distress tolerance may become overwhelmed by mildly stressful situations, potentially responding negatively. Sometimes the desire to get rid of the pain is so strong that we may engage in risky behavior to cover what we are feeling, which only makes things worse.

Fortunately, there are ways to improve our ability to tolerate stressful situations. When we can’t fix or change a stressful situation immediately, a great way to see yourself through the crisis situation is to use a distress tolerance skill to distract yourself from the problem in the short term.

By taking a step away from the crisis, we allow ourselves to revisit it with a fresh set of eyes when we have more time or a better ability to address the problem. We may not know exactly what we want or need in the moment, and using distress tolerance gives us the time to come back to it later when we have more of an idea of the best way to proceed.

It’s important to note that there is a big difference between distracting yourself in the short term, which is what we are talking about here, versus consistently avoiding an issue long term, which can potentially make things worse.

One simple distress tolerance skill is a DBT acronym—ACCEPTS.

ACCEPTS Stands for:

A – Activities

Find your favorite activity to engage in. Watch an episode of tv, go for a walk, play a game, clean up your home, call a friend, read a book, or complete a puzzle.

C – Contributing

Volunteer to help a friend tackle a project, help your sibling with his or her homework, donate items you no longer need, or give a friend a hug.

C – Comparisons

Think about how you feel now compared to a different time when you weren’t coping as well. Remember other people who may be going through something similar.

E – Emotions

Change the emotions you’re feeling. If you’re feeling sad, watch a funny movie. If you’re stressed, listen to some calming music.

P – Pushing Away

Whatever you’re experiencing, push it out of your mind for a while. Refuse to let yourself think of the situation for as long as you need to in order to get through your day.

T – Thoughts

Change your thoughts. Try reading a book, sing a song, or listen to a podcast—anything that gets you thinking about something else.

S – Sensations

Try petting your dog or cat, squeeze a stress ball, take a hot shower, or do some intense exercise.

ACCEPTS helps you to tolerate your distress until it’s the appropriate time to resolve the situation. Use this simple acronym as a way to remember this important set of distraction techniques.

The more you practice these skills, the easier it will be to tolerate stress and figure out what works best for you. Sometimes you may have to use more than one set of distraction techniques and rotate through them a few times until you feel a sense of relief.

Authored by: Jennifer Jamgochian, LMSW