The Secret to Surviving Stressful Transitions

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When I went through yoga-teacher training, way back before I became a psychotherapist, I remember one of the very first things my teacher told us as a class: “There are only two things in life that are certain – death and change.”

While to some that may seem a tad morbid, holding that saying in our minds can have valuable power. It reminds us that at the end of the day, we are always going to have to deal with transitions; and we’re probably a lot better off if we can learn to live with that instead of trying to fight it.

Thankfully, there are strategies we can learn to help us ride out these periods of transition in our life without making it worse.  In fact, Distress Tolerance is one of four valuable skill sets taught in Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy (DBT) that is designed to help us do just that. DBT is a style of therapy originally designed to treat people with extreme emotional distress, but has since been tested on a number of people and populations. The main goal of DBT is to help people learn strategies to improve the quality of their lives.

Distress Tolerance: What is it and when to use it?

Distress tolerance skills are designed to help us ride out periods of crisis or emotional overwhelm.  I often tell clients that it’s time to use Distress Tolerance strategies when you feel so exhausted or burnt out that you simply don’t feel like you have the energy (or the ability) to solve whatever is stressing you out at the time. I always tell clients: If you can solve whatever problem has got you overwhelmed in the first place – DO IT! There is no need to suffer unnecessarily. But sometimes we don’t have that option, and the next best thing to do is hunker-down, ride it out, and do everything in our power to survive the transition without making it worse.  That way, when the stressor naturally passes, we will be in a better place to pick up, move on, and keep making positive change in our lives.

Goals of Distress Tolerance

So with that said, the goals of Distress Tolerance skills, according to Marsha Linehan and the most-recent DBT manual are:

  1. To survive crisis situations (or periods of transition) without making them worse
  2. To accept reality as it is in this moment, and to replace suffering (stress) and feeling stuck with an ordinary amount of discomfort and an awareness of the possibility to move forward
  3. To become free of giving into ineffective or unhealthy urges (like calling out sick from work, avoiding friends and family, or binging on that delicious chocolate cake when we know we are going to feel guilty afterwords)

How to Practice Distress Tolerance

Now that you have an understanding of what Distress Tolerance means and why we use these skills, the next natural step may be to wonder HOW to put these skills into practice. Well, to be truthful, the good news is that there are a WHOLE BUNCH of strategies you can use to help ride out stressful transitions. One of my personal favorites is self-soothing.

Self-Soothing with the Five Senses

I like using self-soothing skills to manage stress and overwhelm because when it comes down to it, they are simple to implement and remember; and I am a HUGE proponent of keeping things simple! After all, you can’t use healthy life strategies if you can’t remember them, right?

Self-soothing skills encourage us to have a variety of tools at our disposal that nurture each of our five sense, because sometimes the best thing we can do is take really, really, (really!) good care of our bodies until life eases up a bit. What nurtures you may be different from what nurtures someone else. Therefore, the most important factor is that you listen to your gut and develop a toolkit that works best for you.  To get you started, I am providing some suggestions often given in DBT:

Self-soothing with Sight

  1. Buy one beautiful flower for yourself and take a moment to study it and examine its beauty.
  2. Light a candle and watch the flame flicker.
  3. Take a walk through a pretty part of town (or at the beach).
  4. Watch the sunrise or sunset.
  5. Carry a photo of a person, pet, or place that you love. Take it out throughout the day to look at when you are feeling stressed.

Self-soothing with Sound

  1. Pay attention to nature sounds. Sit outside and listen to leaves rustling in the breeze, waves at the beach, or birds chirping in your backyard.
  2. Hum or sing your favorite song. Or learn to sing a new song that you like (or try to play it on an instrument).
  3. Make the updated version of a mixtape: load up your cellphone, Ipod, or whatever you choose with songs that make you feel empowered. Then make sure you listen to it when you need to!
  4. Buy a windchime. Hang it outside and listen for it.

Self-soothing with Smell

  1. Treat yourself to your favorite body wash, cologne, or perfume. When you use it, take a moment to consciously enjoy the aroma.
  2. Burn a scented candle or some incense in a smell that feels comforting to you.
  3. Get outside into a wooded area and mindfully breath in the fresh air and the scents around you. If the woods are not accessible to you, go out into your yard or a public park and literally “smell the roses.”

Self-soothing with Taste

  1. Eat one of your favorite foods. (Mine is spicy chocolate!). Take a moment to slow down and really enjoy it.
  2. Think of a food that brings you back to your childhood in a happy and comforting way. It could be macaroni and cheese, pigs in a blanket, or smores. Whatever it is, treat yourself to it.
  3. Drink your favorite soothing drink, such as an herbal tea, latte, or smoothie.

Self-soothing with Touch

  1. Take a long, hot bath or shower.
  2. Snuggle with your pet.
  3. Put a cold compress on your forehead.
  4. Put clean sheets on the bed.
  5. Wrap yourself up in your favorite blanket.


As you have hopefully come to realize, coming up with ideas to soothe your senses in times of stress is not that difficult.  However, these are the things that often fall by the wayside when we become stressed and overwhelmed. Identifying what soothes you and knowing this ahead of time can increase the chances that you utilize these skills when you really need them. So take some time to brainstorm for yourself using the list above or by simply coming up with your own ideas.  Think about the things that soothe each of your five senses, and come up with strategies to make sure you have access to these when you need them.  Are you already great at self-soothing? If so, leave your favorite self-soothing ideas in the comments below!