7 Ways To Improve Distress Tolerance

The ability to manage one’s emotional state in response to stress-inducing factors is what is called distress tolerance. Some people can encounter incredibly stressful situations and remain calm and composed; taking a logical approach to manage a situation and then move beyond the situation and resume where they left off before the intrusion. This is a wonderful character trait that is part of genetics, how they were raised, their present circumstance, and good mental health conditioning.

Trauma survivors, individuals with PTSD, CPTSD, and borderline personality disorder can be more sensitive to stressors in their life, especially when they can not predict them. For me, it tends to be when I perceive that I have disappointed someone and so my danger system kicks in; I get a jolt of adrenaline, and my fight, flight, faun response takes over. It’s most common for me to want to flee the situation. I do this in two ways; physically and mentally. I want to leave the situation, person, space, and be alone and I can, at times completely blackout for a few moments.

To someone who doesn’t live with the impact of developmental trauma like I do, this can seem like an extreme response, but to those who fight a mental health battle every day, this is intrusive and impacts our ability to function in our everyday lives. There are some tried and true approaches to improving the management of these responses which even the healthiest person can benefit from and here are 7 of my favorite.



Remember when you were a child and you were given a time-out to compose yourself, well, we never outgrew out of that need, and yet we often do not take the restorative break. After all, we somehow think we always have too much to do. Even a few minutes of quiet in the midst of a hectic day can reset your system enough to improve your ability to emotionally manage the next challenge that comes your way. I now take breaks, even when I don’t think I need them. I plan dates out and fun activities so I have something to look forward to and when I know my nervous system has just been activated, I find a reason to take a break and go for a walk, sit still and meditate, pray or do anything which nurtures me and gives me space from my day or the provoking situation. Consider setting an appointment on your calendar with a personal reminder to take a break every few hours.  


Focus on Your Personal Values

Every organization takes time to establish the values they wish to base their decisions on.  It’s quite powerful for you to do the same. Write your values down and put them somewhere that you can see them every day; this will help you stay focused on what matters most to you. The other thing to keep in mind is that what you value may not be what someone else values; thus allowing you to be you and others to be who they are. Finally, try to act on these values, at least supporting one each day.  Start today by writing out 3 things that you feel should steer your value-based decisions and place and place them on your fridge.


Practice Safe-Place Visualization

This is a form of meditation and is very easy to do and not very time consuming but can improve your ability to tolerate stress in a powerful way;

  1. Relax and be mindfully aware of your breathing
  2. Engage your imagination by thinking about a safe place – it can be real or imaginary.
  3. Use your imagination and build a scene in your mind of what you see, hear, and maybe what you might be able to touch.
  4. Make it as peaceful and calm as possible.
  5. Stay there for 5 minutes.

This can be done pretty much anywhere, is not intrusive to anyone else, and can improve your stress tolerance and even improve your overall mental performance.  I like to use my scheduled break times (as above). 


Relax Using Soothing Sounds

Calming music and sounds from nature, such as a babbling brook or birds chirping have been proven to calm the nervous system. Scientists now know that our body responds to calm music and sounds in a variety of ways; hormones are released to induce a sense of well being, your heart rate and blood pressure drop, muscle tension eases, breathing can become slower. My go-to is a little smooth jazz but to each their own.1  But when music is unavailable I seem to always find a bird this time of year to listen to. 


Distract Your Thoughts

I remember when my daughter was young and I needed to take her for her vaccine. The best way to get through the distressing situation for her and I was to find a distraction. We would talk about something unrelated to the needle she was about to get; point out stuff in the room, count to 3, or play imagination games – you get the idea.  so next time your mind goes to the negative side or becomes anxious, intentionally distract yourself. 


Do Something Pleasurable 

It sounds easy; live a little, enjoy life, have some fun! Today I challenge you to make a list of activities you enjoy, once enjoyed, or would like to try. By committing to do something pleasurable every day you boost feel-good chemicals in your body such as dopamine and serotonin. Now take out your calendar and actually schedule these activities in. Enjoy! Oh, that’s the idea.


Scents Make Sense

Oh, you have to forgive my play on words – I can get carried away. Face it, good smells make you feel good and pungent smells can make you want to vomit. In a world where most public places have a scent-free policy, I sneak it. I keep my favorite hand lotion in my purse and one in my car. I can be in the worst of moods but smelling something nice can really pick up the mood – just ask my husband when he comes home to a meal in the oven or I wake up to him cooking breakfast!


Soothing Touch

Tactile sensations can really boost your mood and keep you from thinking about all the work you left behind, need to do, or the challenges you have faced in the past and yet to face in the future. Essentially it forces you to focus on now in an enjoyable way. My go-to is a piece of clay on my pottery wheel – love the mud. But maybe you love the feeling of leather on your car seat, the warmth of a long shower, or the soft fur of your pet. 2


Thanks to modern neuroscience research we know that our brain never stops changing. As you incorporate distress tolerance skills into your life, it will become easier over time to incorporate these skills into daily activity and will promote new brain neurons that support a higher level of distress tolerance. Eventually, these simple and enjoyable activities can help permanently increase your ability to tolerate stressors.



  1. Breus, M. (2018, December 13). The Many Health and Sleep Benefits Of Music. Retrieved September 19, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/sleep-newzzz/201812/the-many-health-and-sleep-benefits-music
  2. McKay, M., Wood, J. (2019) Daily Practices for Emotional Balance. Obtained September 19, 2020, from Harbinger Publications, USA.