DBT Distress Tolerance Skill: Distracting

Some notes on distress tolerance: distracting as a mental health skill.

It is important to acknowledge it is not always appropriate to distract yourself from your emotions. Many people use distractions to hide from their problems permanently. That’s not a skill, it’s a hindrance.

Distraction is a tool that can be used to help you tolerate distress; through a time period where the problem causing distress can be solved better by tolerating distress – in the moment – and problem solving/resolving later, or when you are experiencing emotional pain that threatens to become overwhelming.

You distract until you can get somewhere to process emotion. It is not for standard every day issues.

When in distress, we are more likely to reach crisis quickly. Impulsivity and feelings of urgency cause major problems for people experiencing crises.

Distractions are tools we can use to both help prevent reaching crisis, or if we do reach crisis, we have this tool we can reference what to do RIGHT NOW so you don’t do anything bad with your impulsive, emotional self.

Distract with:
Activities. Focus on a task. Rent or watch a movie. Clean 1 room in your house. Go walking/exercise. Play computer games. Call a friend. Build something. Spend time with your kids. Do sudoku or crosswords. Read a book, magazine, or comic. Action should be neutral or opposite to your emotions.

Contributing: volunteer work. Help a friend or family member. Surprise someone with something small and nice (a hug, card, small favor). Give away things you don’t need. Share information or teach something. Send an encouraging message to someone, or just say hi

Comparisons: compare how you are doing now to another time you felt different. Acknowledge the way your feelings change over time.

Different Emotions: read emotional books or stories, old letters you know you can handle. Listen to emotional music, watch emotional movies, look at happy photos – it has to produce a DIFFERENT emotion in you than what is making you experience a crisis or distress. You need to know what your current emotion is in order to change it – If you are already angry and barely able to control yourself, don’t listen to music or watch movies that will contribute to that energy and anger.

Pushing Away:
Blocking, or pushing away painful thoughts or leaving a distressing situation should not be the first skill used, but it can be useful IN AN EMERGENCY. It seems to be associated with disassociating. Some people are better at it than others. Examples: leaving your work life at work when you come home. Building up imaginary walls between yourself and others. Put your emotions away in a “box”, and put the box on the shelf until you can handle dealing with them. For something like, say, addiction, tell yourself wait 5 more minutes every 5 minutes. This is also something I do for myself when I am suicidal – just keep waiting 5 more minutes, 5 more minutes.

Thoughts: distract with other words or thoughts to take up short term memory, so the thoughts being triggered by negative emotion do not continue to reactivate the emotion. Examples: sing a song in your head, count the number of specific objects or colors around you, count to 10,

Sensations: intense sensations can focus attention on something other than crisis urges. Holding ice cubes was recommended, also squeeze a small ball, take a shower, go out in rain or snow, eat spicy or sour food


Having something prepared for activities, emotions, and other thoughts can help you practice the skill.


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