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Relaxed man showing distress tolerance

What is Distress Tolerance?

Let’s Look at the Relationship Between Distress Tolerance and Alcohol Abuse

Stress is a part of everyday life, and everyone has different ways of coping. But if you’ve relied on alcohol abuse to escape from emotional pain and distress, even minor stressors can seem overwhelming during recovery. It takes time and patience to build up positive coping skills, and doing this can help you tolerate stressful situations without making them worse. This is called distress tolerance, and it’s an essential part of addiction recovery.

Here we’ll explore distress tolerance, how it impacts people with an alcohol use disorder, and simple ways to raise your distress tolerance.

What is Distress Tolerance?

Distress tolerance is the ability to endure emotional discomfort without turning to harmful coping methods. You may need to cope with distress when you can’t leave the situation or solve the problem right away. Your body’s fight-or-flight mode may kick in, causing you to feel overstimulated and overwhelmed.

If you have high distress tolerance, you’ve learned to soothe your emotions by engaging your five senses. You may also use safe distractions to keep yourself occupied until the distress passes. You may still feel uncomfortable, but you can identify your needs early and prevent your distress from overtaking you.

Having low distress tolerance means you may turn to alcohol abuse, act aggressively toward others, or harm yourself. Despite the consequences, you may keep doing these behaviors, often out of habit.  And if a situation seems too stressful, you may avoid it altogether or leave when you feel overwhelmed. These coping methods can strain relationships, interrupt your work life, and leave you feeling isolated.

How Does Distress Tolerance Impact People Living with Alcohol Use Disorder?

For people living with an alcohol use disorder, stress can fuel a person’s urges and cravings for substances. It’s impossible to eliminate all stress from a person’s life, so distress tolerance skills are essential for managing everyday activities.

Learning new coping methods can take some adjustment, but distress tolerance is critical for recovery. With practice, people with alcohol use disorder can ride out their emotional ups and downs with fewer cravings or urges to use alcohol. Instead of feeling defeated or out of control, they can become resilient and feel capable.

How Can a Person Raise Their Distress Tolerance?

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is an evidence-based approach that teaches a person acceptance and emotional regulation skills to help them cope with distress. It takes practice for a person to learn new coping methods, they can improve their distress tolerance using safe activities like these in time.

  • Taking a brisk walk to burn off some nervous energy
  • Listening to music, nature sounds or white noise
  • Having a comforting drink or light snack
  • Engaging in a hobby or project that requires focus
  • Using small objects to create distracting sensations like a snap on the wrist, tapping, or safe levels of heat and cold
  • Doing something for another person to get their mind off their struggle

Reach Out for Help with Alcohol Abuse

Recovery from alcohol abuse can be stressful, even when things are going well. It’s a big adjustment to live without drugs or alcohol, and it can take time to find your own path. In outpatient treatment for alcohol abuse, the distress tolerance skills you learn can help you through the ups and downs of recovery. Call us at the P.A.T.H. program at 888-622-7809. We’re here to listen and help you when you need it most.

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