Why Distress Tolerance Plays A Role In Addiction Recovery?

Trying to survive an emotional crisis, feeling like you’re losing control of your life, and not being able to change challenging situations can be distressing. Feeling this way can compel you to turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. Knowing how to cope with and endure distressing emotions without making matters worse can help stop you from using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Luckily, learning distress tolerance skills can help you cope with your feelings when you feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do.

What Is Distress Tolerance?

Everyone experiences difficult emotions and stress at times. Life stressors can include daily annoyances or significant events such as job loss, divorce, or the death of a loved one. Regardless of the level of stress you’re experiencing, your ability to handle these kinds of situations determines how you respond to them. We call this ability to handle stress your distress tolerance.

Distress tolerance is the ability to handle challenging emotions and troubling situations. Learning distress tolerance skills can significantly improve your ability to handle difficult emotions in a healthy, productive way. If your level of distress tolerance is low, you probably become overwhelmed easily. Living with high amounts of emotional distress can make you more likely to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms including drugs and alcohol.

Common Types of Distress Tolerance Techniques

There are several different types of distress tolerance techniques. Some of the most common include:

Distraction. Negative feelings usually pass or lessen in intensity over time. You can use different methods to distract yourself from the feelings causing you distress. Some common ways to distract yourself include:

  • Engaging in activities that require thought and concentration, such as a hobby, project, work, or school.
  • Focusing on someone or something other than yourself. You can volunteer or do a good deed for someone else, like writing them a letter or buying them a gift.
  • Looking at your situation in comparison to something worse. For example, take a moment to think about a time when you were in more pain or when someone else you know was going through something more challenging.
  • Doing something that will create a competing emotion. For example, if you’re feeling sad, watch a funny movie. If you’re feeling nervous, listen to soothing music.
  • Finding a safe physical sensation to distract you from your intense negative emotions. You can wear a rubber band and snap it on your wrist, hold an ice cube in your hand, or eat something sour like a lemon or lime.

Improving the movement. This strategy aims to make the stressful situation more tolerable. You can do that by visualizing a relaxing scene, taking a mental break, going for a walk, praying, journaling, or doing something else you enjoy.

Pros and cons. This technique encourages you to think about the potential pros and cons of tolerating or not tolerating the stressor.

Radical acceptance. This strategy teaches you to accept things just as they are and let go of regret, anger, and bitterness. Instead of focusing on things that can’t change or something out of your control, radical acceptance helps you accept situations without judging them as good or bad.

Self-soothing. Knowing how to keep yourself calm and keep negative emotions in check is important for building distress tolerance. Some common examples of self-soothing include:

  • Listening to your favorite music
  • Playing with a pet
  • Lighting candles and using aromatherapy
  • Drinking a cup of hot tea
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Watching funny videos
  • Touching something comforting

Interoceptive exposure. This technique can help increase your ability to tolerate the effects of intense negative emotions on your body. The process involves gradual exposure to physical sensations associated with threats or stress. Exposing yourself to these sensations can help you identify unhelpful thoughts and actions related to these feelings and learn to cope with them in a healthy way.

All of these techniques can help benefit addiction recovery.

How Can Distress Tolerance Benefit Addiction Recovery?

There are several ways that distress tolerance can benefit the recovery process. In addition to helping you manage overwhelming emotions, distress tolerance skills can help:

  • Decrease your likelihood of self-medication. When you use alcohol, pills, or illicit drugs to treat the challenges you’re experiencing, you’re self-medicating. Whether you self-medicate to numb uncomfortable feelings, fill an emotional void, or experience pleasure, self-medication is a dangerous habit that can:
    • Trigger mental health challenges
    • Make your situation worse
    • Prevent you from seeking and getting the help you need

      Learning how to properly deal with emotions that make you want to drink and use drugs can help stop you from self-medicating.
  • Manage Cravings. Spending time with certain people, being in certain places, and dealing with specific situations can trigger cravings for drugs and alcohol. Dealing with these cravings can lead to mental, emotional, or physical relapse. Knowing how to handle the distress these triggers can cause can help you satisfy the urge to “feel better” without using drugs or alcohol.
  • Overcome Past Trauma and Unexpected Challenges. Many people grappling with addiction challenges use drugs and alcohol to cope with trauma from their past. Living with unresolved trauma can make you feel hopeless, helpless, shameful, guilty, worthless, isolated, and unloved. Distress tolerance can help you cope with those emotions without worsening your situation.

Learn A Better Way To Deal With Overwhelming Emotions

Emotions can be overwhelming, but so can behaving in unproductive, unhealthy ways. There’s hope. Our treatment programs can help teach you to deal with distressing emotions. Let us help you get there.

Contact us today if you or someone you love has been living under the weight of overwhelming, distressing emotions. Our compassionate and understanding team is ready to help you identify, process, and work through those emotions in practical, helpful, and productive ways.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

qEEG/Brain Mapping

Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients’ brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.


This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

Spravato Therapy

We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)

Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

Individual Therapy

Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

Group/Family Therapy

Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space.

Contact StoneRidge Centers

5940 E. Copper Hill Dr. Ste B & E, Prescott Valley, AZ. 86314

We exercise progressive, leading brain science in our treatment approach for patients in our community and across the country who are struggling with mental health and addiction challenges.