Developing Distress Tolerance

One of the core principles of DBT is mindfulness.  Mindfulness has suddenly gained momentum in our culture.  It made the cover of TIME magazine.  It sounds like an Eastern principle or out-of-reach way of life.  To me, it sounds like something that one of my husband’s friends would pursue back in the day.  My husband had a friend who fancied himself a writer.  I don’t mean that he wanted to write.  I mean that he wanted to cultivate a rarefied writer persona in which he grew out his hair, never shaved, drank scotch, started smoking, and talked about himself.  A lot.  He began wearing black turtlenecks and refusing to read genre fiction anymore.  When I hear the word ‘mindfulness’, I imagine my husband’s friend taking a drag on one of his filterless cigarettes, exhaling, and then saying, “I’ve decided that I need to go out into the desert to become more mindful.  Perhaps I will bring my Dostoyevsky and my typewriter…and an extra turtleneck.”

Incidentally, he did finally write a novel and self-publish it.  It was one of the worst novels I’ve ever tried to read.  He went back to being a programmer.  Oh, and he started bathing again.

So, what is mindfulness? I’m going to define it quite simply.  Mindfulness is being present.  That is as simple as I can put it.  I can almost hear a crowd of people say, “What? That’s it? Well, that’s easy.”  Not so fast.

To be truly present in each moment means that you do not try to escape whatever is happening around you, to you, or within you.  It means that you stay put and become an observer of your surroundings, others, yourself, your bodily sensations, your thoughts, and your own responses to all the above.  This requires distress tolerance, and it is the level of distress tolerance that a person has that, in my experience, determines how mindful they can be.

Let me give you an example from the adult experience:

Bob and Anne are married.  Anne is 8 months pregnant with twins.  Anne has been on bed rest for almost the entirety of her pregnancy due to complications brought on by hyperemesis gravidarum.  For Bob, this has meant no sexy times.  For 8 months.  Bob is about to lose it.  He thinks about sex all the time.  He misses his wife.  He misses what their lives used to feel like.  He wants to have sex.  He feels like he needs to have sex.  He’s pretty sure that he can’t take another second of feeling this sexually amped up.  He would ask her for oral sex, but he doesn’t want to make her throw up.  He’s been watching her suffer, feeling helpless, so that her body can bring their two beautiful babies into the world.  He doesn’t want to add to that.  What about manual stimulation? She’s so weak and completely uninterested! He doesn’t want to be that guy.  He loves her! But, he’s going crazy! He hates feeling like this.  Sex, sex, sex, sex.  That’s all he thinks about now.  Not the babies.  And he feels guilty.  And horny.  All the damn time.  He wants to get away from himself.

Welcome to adulthood.  It sucks, doesn’t it? This is a very realistic picture of the Mindfulness Crossroads.  Bob could look for a short-term exit strategy to avoid feeling as he does, or he could develop distress tolerance which would develop emotional maturity, empathy, and a stronger relationship with his wife.  Make no mistake.  It is very hard.  This is why mindfulness sounds like a pretty word but can feel almost impossible in the moment.  It’s the distress tolerance factor.

In cases like Bob’s, porn would be the go-to imaginary partner/exit strategy.  It’s a quick shot of anesthesia in the moment, but, after it wears off, Bob is right back where he started.  It’s certainly understandable.  Bob, however, would not develop the distress tolerance to get in there, neck deep with his wife and ride out what is sure to be one of the hardest things she’s ever endured as well.  Ordeal is a powerful experience that forges lasting bonds between people particularly partners.  It takes a great deal of mettle to volunteer to stay in the ordeal experience when there are so many exits available through cultural distraction like pornography, endless entertainment options, the legitimacy and worship of busyness, consumption, and the cultural acceptance of personal entitlement at the expense of others in the name of the pursuit of happiness and personal comfort.  The development of distress tolerance so that we can learn to stay present and aware of our own changing inner climate, be present for others, and develop interpersonal skills that will cultivate stronger bonds be they in personal or professional relationships is not an idea that is promoted, but it’s impossible to develop mindfulness without it.

Learning to increase our tolerance for distress so that we can be mindful is probably one of the best things we can do for ourselves not to mention one of the best things we can teach our children.  We might start feeling like we can’t deal with certain things at all.  I used to feel this way about my mother.  I had zero distress tolerance for her or for anyone who behaved like her.  Over the years, I have learned to tolerate behaviors that remind me of her.  What’s more, I can stay present to myself and my surroundings when I’m with someone who decides to channel Joan Crawford’s Mommy Dearest.  I have developed distress tolerance.

We are teaching Grace to develop distress tolerance.  It’s a process made up of baby steps, but it’s an important process.  She will like herself more and more when she knows that she can tolerate and even do well under pressure.  She may not be able to tolerate as much distress as others, but she can learn to tolerate more as she matures.  This is not an accidental process.  It’s deliberate.  That is the choice set before all of us.  For me, when I’m experiencing a feeling that I strongly dislike like rejection or emotional pain, I will sit with it for at least five minutes.  I will not compartmentalize it or try to escape it.  I will practice tolerating the pain.  Please note the word ‘practice’ here.  Mindfulness is a practice.  We practice observing the thoughts that are floating through our minds without judging them.  We practice paying attention to our feelings.  We practice observing our environments.  We practice staying present to our feelings no matter how uncomfortable.  When we’ve had enough, when we’ve stretched ourselves as far as we can, then we stop practicing.  This is how you increase your mindfulness endurance.

I want to refer you to a resource.  It’s a curriculum called Mind UP.  It teaches mindfulness combined with neuroscience to children and teens.  DBT shows up in there as well.  I have a friend who is using this curriculum at home with her daughter, and it’s proving to be very successful.  I am going to implement this with Grace, Eadaoin, and Milly.  Distress tolerance is something that we will continue to talk about as we continue our mindfulness journey.  Life doesn’t get any easier as we grow.  We need to add to our toolboxes so that we’re successful both personally and professionally.


The MindUP Curriculum: Grades 6-8

The MindUP Curriculum: Grades 3-5


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