Five steps to managing distress
Step 1: Recognise your triggers
You need to first have some awareness of what triggers your distress. These triggers could be external, such as certain situations, events, people, cues in the environment, etc. or the triggers could be internal, such as certain thoughts, memories, images or physical sensations. A good way to analyse your common triggers is to think of past examples of not being able to deal with distress. That is, times in the past when you used old escape methods e.g. avoiding situations, seeking reassurance, distraction and suppression, alcohol or drugs, binge eating or excessive sleep.
Step 2: Know your warning signs
In addition to being aware of the common triggers of your distress, it is useful to be aware of the warning signs that tell you that you are having trouble dealing with your distress. Warning signs are the feelings, thoughts, physical sensations and behavioural urges or actions that signal you are feeling overwhelming distress.
Step 3: Commit to not using your escape methods & do the opposite action
Once you acknowledge your distress and are more aware of your triggers and warning signs, you are then in a better position to make a commitment to dropping your usual escape methods. The commitment you make might sound something like: “I will try to tolerate this distress, rather than using my old habit of drinking to dull the pain” or “I will stay with this feeling, rather than avoiding situations that make me feel this way.” The main thing is making your actions a conscious choice, rather than an automatic habit.
Step 4: Accept distress
In essence, recognise and allow the emotion; watch it operate in yourself by detaching from it, describing it and using imagery; be present by focusing on a task or on your breathing; and finally, deal with the inevitable emotional comebacks.
Step 5: Improve distress tolerance
Use distress improvement activities. Some will be active such as walking in nature, swimming or sport, while others will be calmer, such as talking with friends, having a cup of tea or reading. Essentially, use activities that work for you, repeat to yourself words of encouragement that can help you through the moment of distress and think about problem solving that may be relevant when you have some control over the situation distressing you.
Distress is inevitable in life, but over time, you can work to be not overwhelmed by it.