In my recent posts, I’ve dived into the meaty topic of resilience. Take optimism, for example. It can significantly influence outcomes, including your performance, health, and sometimes, even how long you live. But what happens when, despite our glass-half-full attitude and best efforts, things don’t go our way? That’s where another facet of resilience comes into play—dealing with life’s setbacks and managing the whirlwind of emotions they bring. This is where the concept of distress tolerance enters the picture.
Let’s face it, negative experiences are part and parcel of life, for us and our kids. Psychologists view distress tolerance as a sort of emotional first aid. Just like optimism, some people are naturally better equipped with a higher distress tolerance thanks to their temperament. But for those who find themselves easily bowled over by life’s curveballs, the goal is to boost that tolerance, to learn to go with the flow. Here are some tried-and-true strategies to do just that:
When we’re upset, our bodies go into high alert mode, our blood pressure skyrockets, our hearts race, and our muscles tense up. This fight-flight-freeze response is fantastic in an actual emergency but not so much in everyday situations. One of the best ways to tell your brain to cool its jets is by practicing deep-breathing exercises. In fact, studies have shown that soldiers suffering from anxiety after combat experienced significant relief after just a week of intensive breathing exercises. Another tool in this toolkit is guided imagery, which is basically just a fancy term for daydreaming about your happy place. For my son, there’s no place like the San Diego Zoo. Just the mere thought of his favorite exhibit can make his worries melt away.
Embrace Radical Acceptance. This term, coined by psychologist Marsha Linehan, is rooted in Buddhist principles of accepting and being mindful of life as it unfolds around us. It encourages us to take life as it comes, not as we wish it would be. Now, this isn’t a walk in the park by any means. Remember, accepting something doesn’t mean you’re giving it the thumbs up. Life can be downright unfair, and we’re not saying you or your kids should give injustices a pass. But to cope and respond effectively, we’ve got to see things as they really are, not as we want them to be.
Self-compassion is your best friend when it comes to building distress tolerance. Research has linked a lack of self-compassion to increased levels of inflammation, a physical response to stress. Since inflammation can lead to all sorts of health issues, from hay fever and gum disease to even cancer and Alzheimer’s, being kind to yourself isn’t just good for your mental health—it’s good for your physical health too. The trick is to catch those self-critical thoughts when they pop up and challenge them.
At the end of the day, bad things are still going to happen, no matter how hard we try to prevent them. But with these tools in our arsenal, we’re better equipped to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep on moving forward.