Distress Tolerance: Coping Thoughts

A while ago I wrote a post or two about distress tolerance. I mainly talked about distraction, which is the easiest distress tolerance skill for me. I’ve been trying to expand and strengthen my distress tolerance skills. This post will be about coping thoughts.

It’s a well-known fact thoughts influence how we feel (and sometimes how we act). Coping thoughts are basically encouraging or positive thoughts to help you get through a rough situation or make you feel better. A few examples are: “These feelings are temporary,” “There is no immediate threat to my safety,” and “I have survived feelings/situations like this before; I will survive this.”

It can be helpful to write down your favorite coping thoughts and keep them somewhere you will see them a lot. I like to write them down and take a picture of it to keep on my phone. Some people use index cards or post-it notes or a piece of paper tucked into their wallet.

One very important thing about coping thoughts is that they are easier and more effective if used before things escalate. It took some time for me to realize this. I would wait until my mood or feelings were very intense before trying to use them and then get frustrated that they weren’t doing any good. I decided it was a stupid idea and that it wouldn’t work for me.

Then after I had a really rough time in May and I was exhausted from dealing with constant meltdowns, I reached a point where I refused to tolerate painful emotions. As soon as I noticed my thoughts or feelings were headed in a negative direction I’d distract myself with anything–junk food, cutting, video games, covering my ears and rocking and humming to myself, whatever it took to not feel bad. This is pretty typical borderline behavior, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary for me. But avoiding anything painful became my absolute top priority.

That wasn’t the healthiest way to deal with stuff, but there was a benefit: I started to notice my feelings more quickly and respond to them before they got out of control. Then when I decided to try using other skills in addition to distraction, it was already a habit to use the skills before things really exploded.

Sometimes my coping thoughts are pretty basic, like “Just because something feels pointless doesn’t mean it is.” That’s been a big one for me lately. Sometimes they are specific to a situation and more than a sentence or two long. For example, I get upset occasionally because I’m not a perfect ABA therapist. I think of my co-workers strengths and hate myself because I don’t have every strength every co-worker has. So I might tell myself something like, “Just because I have things I can get better at doesn’t mean I’m a horrible, worthless therapist. It’s not all or nothing. No one expects perfection from me. One person can’t perform at top level in all areas all the time. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I don’t have to be everything to be worth something or to be good at what I do.”

I hope this post has been helpful. If you do a search for “dbt coping thoughts” on Google images you will find lists of coping thoughts and some worksheets to help with coping thoughts. Feel free to comment below with coping thoughts that have worked for you (or anything else you want to say)!


6 thoughts on “Distress Tolerance: Coping Thoughts

  1. I also struggle with using my coping skills. I tend to wait until they get so bad I can’t concentrate.
    Sometimes I need a reminder to actually start the coping process. Before things get bad I figure I can handle it so I keep doing things even when I feel that things are not going well. I always think it will pass. Only when it gets to late that I start trying to deal with things properly.

    Thank you for this! While I won’t start remembering over night, I do think this will help me start.

    Liked by 1 person

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