There’s a lot of talk about resilience these days. Perhaps it’s a result living through a pandemic, facing existential questions related to humanity’s future in a climatologically unstable world, living in an environment marked by increasingly divisive and tumultuous politics, or the rise of technologies that have radically transformed all areas of life in a very short period of time. All of these and more contribute to the worsening mental health trends we have observed over the past couple of decades, and most precipitously over the last year or so.
Resilience is generally defined as the ability to recover in good time from difficulties or the capacity to spring back into shape, to show “elasticity.” In psychological terms, it means being able to cognitively and emotionally process stress or a crisis in a way that allows one to return to a healthy level of functioning within a reasonable amount of time. Resilience is a popular idea these days because so many of us are having to confront our own capacities and limitations in this area so much right now.
Although each of us has different tolerances and capacities when it comes to being resilient, there are several universal building blocks that are foundational to meeting any challenge with the flexibility and elasticity needed to “bounce back.” Two of the central building blocks are the ability to tolerate negative feelings and experiences and the ability to stay in the present moment so that you can attend to what is right in front of you and keep emotions from spiraling. There are more, but research has repeatedly demonstrated that there is a very strong relationship between these skills and resilience.
What Does It Take to Develop Distress Tolerance?
Distress tolerance, or the ability to tolerate negative feelings and experiences, is a developmentally inherent skill, meaning that all of us become more capable of tolerating more of what is hard, challenging, or simply unwanted, as we grow up. For example, children and infants have very low thresholds for aversive experiences and will cry or show other forms of distress if they meet a challenging situation. As each of us grow, we become capable of handling more stimulus, challenges, and situations we just don’t like for one reason or another. This is a natural part of maturing.
These early naturally occurring experiences help to prepare us for some of the more difficult challenges we will face—loss, disappointment, illness, setbacks, and other unexpected or unwanted challenging experiences. But as we grow, life becomes more complicated and the range of experiences that we will have and the skills that we need to confront those experiences become increasingly complex and require skills we have to put more effort into mastering. What does it take to develop distress tolerance? In a nutshell, it takes the ability to spend more time feeling uncomfortable—with unwanted feelings, physical discomfort, or in an uncomfortable with than one typically feels like they can handle.
Before we go farther, it is important to note that there are times when the ability to tolerate hard feelings is not healthy or desirable. Tolerating discomfort related to abuse, trauma or unhealthy emotional stuffing (when you are avoiding, “manning up”, or otherwise pushing down emotions or things that need to be spoken or otherwise shared) is not a good time or place to practice being able to tolerate discomfort in healthy ways. Indeed, knowing the difference between healthy and unhealthy distress tolerance is another resilience building block!
Fortunately, no matter where you fall on the distress tolerance spectrum, there are ways to build this skill, especially if it’s something you know you want to strengthen. The next time something comes up that you don’t like but that is not highly triggering or dangerous —a feeling, a situation, or physical sensation that feels awkward or otherwise uncomfortable, practice these steps:
- Do nothing. But notice how your mind registers that it doesn’t like the experience and wants you to get out of it—whether it’s to physically leave, avoid, fight back, or escape in one of the ways you use to get away from unwanted experiences. Notice but do not act, if possible.
- Validate your impulse, whatever it is. Describe it to yourself and then express self-understanding and compassion. For example, you can silently say, “I am feeling uncomfortable and want to get away or start a fight so I do not have to feel it. I totally get this and can see that I really do want to help myself feel better—any way I know how.” and then you can add, “I want to try to use this opportunity to get better at tolerating the hard stuff when I need to.”
- Ask yourself, kindly, to stick it out a little longer than you would otherwise. Depending on you and the situation, this could be one minute longer or it could be hours or days longer. If you’re doing this as a practice, it’s important not to push yourself too hard at the beginning, but to simply slowly but surely build stamina. That’s basically what you’re doing—building stamina for discomfort.
It’s ideal to practice building distress tolerance in situations where you have a little bit of control, when you are not totally spiraling. You may not be able to stop the negative emotions or experiences from coming. Nobody can. But you can see it as an opportunity to practice. It works and it helps when the bigger, more out-of-control experiences show up.
How to Stay in the Present Moment to Keep Emotions From Spiraling
Another key building block to building resilience is being able to stay in the present moment and keep emotions from spiraling. This is critical because feeling out of control is common in the vast majority of situations that trigger the need for resilience, and the desire to control something that cannot be controlled tends to result in strong, destabilizing emotions. Once strong emotions come into play, it is very challenging to maintain the flexibility needed to experience and embody resilience.
Fortunately, just as there are ways to practice distress tolerance, there are ways to practice staying in the present moment. In this case, you want to practice in situations that cause uncomfortable emotions that are strong enough to cause you to feel a bit unmoored, uncentered, or ungrounded, but not so much that you cannot practice these skills. Once this occurs, try following these steps:
- Notice if you are allowing your feelings or are resisting them. Do not judge or try to change anything, even if you notice you are resisting. In this case you want to practice allowing your resistance—just be with whatever shows up without changing it.
- Bring your attention to your breath and when you next exhale, see if you can lengthen it a little. Let your inhale happen naturally but increase it just a little more than you would naturally. Exhale slowly and deeply, elongating as much as you can without straining. Do this a few times for about two minutes Exhaling activates the parasympathetic nervous systems and helps to facilitate a state of calm so this is a great place to start.
- Bring your awareness to physical sensations. Notice what it feels like to breathe slowly in and out, sensations on your skin (a breeze, pressure, the touch of clothing), and/or information from any other sense (smell, taste, sound, and sight) that come from the physical environment.
- Maintain your focus on the present. If your mind drifts to the source of your agitation or to related stories in the past or future, gently bring your focus back to what you feel in your body or what your senses detect in the physical environment around you.
Engaging your senses in noticing what your body is feeling and/or what is happening in that moment around you is a great way to keep your mind from adding to the stressful feelings, which it will instinctively want to do in an almost always futile effort to regain a sense of control. Giving your mind something to focus on in the present environment while slowly and mindfully breathing will reduce emotional arousal and reduce the fight or flight reaction that is instinctively activated. You should notice a distinct difference in how you feel, especially once you become skilled in this technique.
Every person has the capacity to meet adversity with resilience. But, few of us are born naturally and robustly resilient, especially when it comes to really challenging life experiences. Practicing distress tolerance and staying in the present moment with bite sized challenges will help us prepare to meet the more significant challenges when they arrive. And while there are a number of skills that contribute to our capacity for resilience when the really challenging experiences arrive, distress tolerance and staying in the present moment are key building blocks. Also note that practicing resilience doesn’t have to be a solo activity. Friends and family members can practice these techniques together or help each other remember to practice them when opportunities arise.