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)!


Distraction Techniques

In my last post I talked about distraction, the first part of distress tolerance skills. I’m sure most of you have no problem coming up with distraction techniques, but just in caaaase I’m going to post a list of ideas.

  • Watch cat videos on youtube. Or dog videos. Any animal videos are great.
  • Color, paint, or draw. I got a pack of decent watercolors for $5 at Walmart. Crayons and colored pencils are even less.
  • Play a video/computer/tablet/phone game. I have a Wii, but even if you don’t have a video game console there are so many free games for devices. My favorite is The Simpsons Tapped Out. It has a story line, but there are plenty of basic games like solitaire and Tetris and Candy Crush.
  • Read a book or magazine or something online.
  • Watch a show or movie that you find comforting, inspiring, or hilarious.
  • Do something that requires a little bit of thought or concentration like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle. Put something together or organize a bookshelf.
  • Exercise. I don’t enjoy  exercising for distress tolerance because I hate exercising, but some people find this very helpful.
  • Replace destructive behaviors with different behaviors. Draw on your body instead of cutting. Punch a pillow instead of taking your anger out on someone else. Tear up paper. Write the name of the person you’re mad at on a balloon then stomp on it.
  • Cuddle your pets/kids/a loved one.
  • Spend time outside, even if it’s just 5-10 minutes.
  • Text or call a friend.
  • Eat one of your favorite foods.
  • Take a shower or nap.

Those are some examples of enjoyable activities to distract yourself with. You can also distract yourself by paying attention to other people. For some people it helps to focus on someone else. Sometimes it helps me to text someone else and ask how they’re doing. Other times I might write people letters or make something for someone I love (like a collage or some other craft).

If you have a good imagination or find it easy to get lost in your thoughts, you can distract yourself by thinking about other things. This one is difficult for me, but some people find it helpful. Here are some examples.

  • Imagine meeting your hero and getting to hang out with them for a day. Imagine that they are totally psyched to spend time with you, and think about what you’d do that day.
  • Pick a room in your living space and imagine navigating it if you were only 3 inches tall.
  • Envision your dream world. Sometimes when I am anxious or can’t sleep, I imagine a place in the woods where fairies live. I think about the creatures that would live there, and all the trees, plants, and dwelling places that would be around.
  • Picture the world being made of food and decide what each item would be made of. I feel like horses’ tails would be spaghetti.
  • Pick the 5 people you’d want with you if you were in a post-apocalyptic situation. It can be people you know in real life, famous people, fictional characters. Then pick 12 items you’d want to have with you.

I mentioned this in the last post, but other ways of distracting yourself are to leave the situation that is upsetting you (if leaving is possible), counting (things around you, like floor tiles or counting by 7’s to yourself or listing prime numbers), and concentrating on your breathing.

I hope this was maybe a tiny bit helpful. In the future when I come across great distraction techniques, I will post them and tag the post “distraction techniques” and “distress tolerance.”

Distress Tolerance Pt 1–Distraction

Yesterday someone with BPD asked me what distress tolerance is, so I decided to write a post about it. I assumed everyone with borderline personality disorder knew what distress tolerance knew what distress tolerance is. That was kind of a ridiculous assumption on my part, since a lot of people don’t have access to therapy and other resources that would provide them with info on distress tolerance.

There is sooo much to say about distress tolerance, so I’m breaking it up a little into multiple posts. This post will be about distraction techniques.

First a little bit about distress tolerance skills. They are basically anything that helps a person get through physical or emotional pain. However, in DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) it gets a little more specific. People with borderline personality disorder often experience overwhelming emotions. A lot of the time when people are dealing with overwhelming emotions they use self-destructive coping skills like self-injury, drugs, alcohol, overeating, taking things out on other people, etc. DBT teaches people to use distress tolerance skills to deal with intense emotions in ways that are not destructive and therefore will not increase suffering.

Distraction is the first part of distress tolerance. Distraction is great because it gets you to think about something besides the pain, and it gives you some time to think of another coping skill.

My favorite form of distraction is to engage in pleasurable activities. That just means doing anything you enjoy. It’s helped me to make a list of things and put it on the wall above my desk so that when I’m extremely upset, I don’t even have to think of something. I can just go to the list.

Some other ways of distracting yourself are to exercise, do housework or chores, pay attention to someone else, thinking about happier things, or focusing on your breathing. Sometimes when I feel bad it really does make me feel better to listen to someone else talk. Other times it makes me feel worse. Some people can distract themselves by focusing on breathing evenly and counting their breaths.

You might immediately know what is going to work for you or it might take some trial and error to figure out what will be helpful to you. I will post a list of suggestions in the very near future.