7 Ways to Practice Building Your Distress Tolerance

As we continue our journey into distress tolerance, I want to give you actions that help illustrate what it means in everyday life.

Most anxiety relief tips actually give you ways to resist the anxiety, to stop feeling the way you’re feeling. Those of us trained in anxiety treatment, however, understand that a better, more effective approach is to feel the anxiety and do it anyway. “It” is whatever action has you anxious (which is sometimes going about daily life.)

Dr. Sally Winston, PsyD says, “feel anxious while you do XYZ.”

It’s a method of responding to what we call anxiety (those thoughts and feelings of danger that come even when there isn’t any real threat). Rather than resist it or fight it (our normal go-to responses), we let it be.

If you’re confused, no worries. Clearing up that confusion is exactly why I wrote this article. Let’s dive into some illustrations of this concept.

The first one comes from Marc Freeman. He compares this process of letting the discomfort be present while living life to the process of working out. What I like about using the workout analogy is you can assess how distress tolerant or intolerant you are by observing how you approach a hard workout. When you face a challenge, what’s your self-talk like? Do you immediately give up? Berate yourself? Or do you get energized and work harder? What about when your legs hurt?

When we keep moving, we teach our brains discomfort isn’t to be feared.

And each time we do this, we’re able to tolerate a little more of the discomfort. Soon, we’re able to work out longer and harder because the discomfort doesn’t come as quickly as it does in the beginning. And we learn that, not only can we work through how it feels, but we can also push through our mental blocks.

That’s the key to increasing our distress tolerance. It’s leaning into the discomfort.

Before I go any further, I do want to say there are limits. Even in working out, we wouldn’t wake up one morning and just run a marathon. We need to build our ability to do so by training — in the case of anxiety or OCD discomfort, it’s by practicing willingly. White knuckling in anything interferes with learning.

It also helps to start small.

In my therapy sessions, I try to find what actions are more neutral for my client. The idea is to start with areas that aren’t really hard for you. This will, of course, vary from person to person. We want your anxiety low enough — but still there — that you learn how to be more tolerant of feeling uncomfortable.

To get you started, here are 7 ways to practice building your distress tolerance:

  1. Extend a physical activity – Run for an extra 5 minutes, walk for an extra half-mile, lift a heavier weight, swim two more laps, do 15 more push-ups. You get the idea.

  2. Leave a notification on your phone without checking it – How long can you ignore that little number that appears on your messaging app?

  3. Send an email without reading it over a second time – Be “sure enough” that it’s correct and just hit “Send”.

  4. Feel hunger pains for 15 minutes longer than you normally would – Delay a meal and see what happens. (prediction: you’ll still be alive).

  5. Go the speed limit – Get there when you get there (bonus points for being happy that you did.)

  6. Stand in the longest line at the grocery store – Just wait your turn or even let someone go ahead of you.

  7. Resist the need to call someone back immediately – Unless it’s an emergency, give yourself 30 minutes before dialing them.

Remember, what we resist, persists. So, the goal isn’t to fight the anxiety. It’s to live our life while we’re feeling it. Have you ever noticed that the more time you spend trying to get rid of the anxiety, the more anxious you feel? Then you do more trying to resist it, and it continues to spike.

Let’s choose a new way to respond and get a new outcome. This sounds simple, but it’s not always easy. Outside help can make all the difference. If you’re in Ohio, reach out!