Why Tolerate Distress?

Many people with mental health issues tend to go to extremes with their emotions because they are unable to regulate them successfully. When I go to extremes, I add another problem on top of the one I’m already dealing with. It’s not just the situation itself,  it’s also the fact that my extreme emotions are running the show.

I relate this to what happens in the body when something irritates it — a splinter, a “scratch” on the inside of an artery, a bacterium such as N. meningitidis (meningococcus). The irritating factor is bad enough, but what happens next can be worse, as the body’s inflammatory responses kick in. The use of immunosuppressants such as steroid to treat bacterial meningitis is counterintuitive, but it works, because inflammation is part of the problem.

Distress tolerance skills give me a way to handle inflamed emotions without hurting myself or other people (hopefully, I don’t destroy property either). The problem of emotions going out of control is quite common — you don’t even have to have a “mental illness” to have it, especially rage (out of control anger).


In the trauma unit headed by Colin A Ross*, therapists described the emotional see saw as three columns. In the left column, all emotions are numbed out or suppressed, often causing physical illness.  In the right column, emotions are magnified: anger becomes rage, sadness becomes depression, happiness becomes euphoria, fear becomes anxiety and phobias, and so on.The middle column is the healthiest place to be, because it is where moderated emotions can be found — not too little, not too much.

So where does distress tolerance come in?

When a person is in the right column they are usually conscious of distress, unless it is euphoria or something similar. How can those out of control emotions be reined in and decreased to moderate levels?

When I have been out of control for awhile and I feel completely unable to stop it, my first choice is Distraction Techniques.  My post “21 Healthy Actions When I’m Upset” includes some Distraction Techniques such as working an online jigsaw puzzle, watching an intriguing TV show for 30 minutes, and looking at the Kitten Cam.

What do you do if you are out of control?


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