The Increasing Need for Distress Tolerance


In today’s society we don’t have to wait very often. Our lives are growing in convenience, whether it’s two-day shipping, your favorite restaurant delivered to your door, or your weekly groceries waiting for you at the store. However, learning to wait is a critical life skill. When we face life’s challenges we try to fix our problems, but unfortunately, many of these situations we can’t fix. We must endure them. The same is true for adolescents. Waiting for a date to prom, having a difficult teacher, or enduring friendship troubles can seem like trials that will never end.

Distress tolerance teaches how to get through difficulties that we can’t change. Learning how to navigate these situations is a life skill that our children can learn at a young age and apply them throughout their lives. Dialectical Behavior Therapy, DBT, teaches many distress tolerance skills. One is ACCEPTS, which is an acronym that stands for:

A-Activities: do something to get your mind off of the situation

C-Contribution: help someone

C-Compare: look at the progress you have made or when you were able to make it through another difficult situation

E-Emotion (opposite): do something that triggers a more pleasant emotion like happiness

P-Push away: tell yourself that you don’t have to figure it all out right now, take a break from the stress

T-Thoughts: engage your thoughts in something like a puzzle, game, or book

S-Sensation: do something that causes a sensation like drinking a cold milkshake or taking a cold/hot shower

ACCEPTS and the other distress tolerance skills will not change the situation, but these strategies can help get you through the difficulty. Distress tolerance is like a raincoat on a rainy day. It doesn’t change the weather, it doesn’t completely shield us from the rain, but it can make a positive impact on our day. Distress tolerance is a lifelong skill that can help in the stress of waiting.

Erin Holcomb, MS, LPC, NCC works with children, adolescents and parents, teaching DBT skills, such as distress tolerance. She also leads DBT-Informed Expressive Therapy groups for Middle and High School Students at Art It Out.

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