Radical Acceptance – Tolerating itchy distress

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By: Jana Greene

I came across the funniest thing on Pinterest today. It was a pin picturing a 50’s housewife smiling absently with the caption “Some days, I’m the Queen of Serenity – and other days separating coffee filters pushes me over the edge.”

I “lol’d.” Hard.

Oh the truth!

I once participated in a group therapy exercise in which Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) distress tolerance skills were addressed.

Sometimes I think we addicts and alcoholics have a super high threshold for substances to soothe our distress (it takes so much), and super low tolerance for dealing with distress without those substances (it takes so little.)

That’s kind of addiction in a nutshell.

Fifteen years into this lifestyle called recovery, I am still learning so much. I have not ‘arrived’ – not even close. But I am alive to keep learning, and that’s everything.

I’m still amazed at people who can simply shrug off very distressing issues. How do you DO that?

I’m learning, but it’s a process. I’ve let the tools I learned get a little rusty.

Distress tolerance is the idea that some of us find certain emotions overwhelming and unbearable.

And how well does that jibe with our drinking and using? It is such a natural FIT, so convenient…

“Oh, I feel THIS way and it’s uncomfortable. I will do anything to stop feeling this distress. ANYTHING rather than FEEL it.”

That is the road that leads to destruction. That is the road that leads to death.

And there is so much to be distressed about in our world. Separating coffee filters not-withstanding. So many heavy things, like refugees and war…and health issues and job issues. You know, life stuff.

I’m dusting off my years-old practice of distress tolerance now, because the negative is starting to be awfully prevalent in my life.

No matter what length of time of sobriety one has, it the absolute tolerance is breached, we are not safe from our prior way of doing things.

If life gets too itchy, we want to scratch it.

“People with a low tolerance for distress can become overwhelmed at relatively mild levels of stress, and may react with negative behaviors…

Many traditional treatment approaches focus on avoiding painful situations, but in the distress tolerance module of DBT….people learn that there will be times when pain is unavoidable and the best course is to learn to accept and tolerate distress.

A key ingredient of distress tolerance is the concept of radical acceptance. This refers to experiencing the situation and accepting the reality of it when it is something the person cannot change.

By practicing radical acceptance without being judgmental or trying to fight reality, the client will be less vulnerable to intense and prolonged negative feelings. Within the distress tolerance module, there are four skill categories:

  1. Distracting
  2. Self-soothing
  3. Improving the moment
  4. Focusing on pros and cons

These skills are aimed at helping individuals cope with crisis and experience distress without avoiding it or making it worse.”

– GoodTherapy.org

Wait, doesn’t ‘radical acceptance’ mean denial? On the surface, it may seem so

But just under the surface, when we really explore the concept, it becomes apparent that it is the balm for that terrible itch of distress.

It’s the okay-ness of feeling whatever we feel, while acknowledging that feelings are not facts.

I’m going to intentionally work on the four skill categories. I hope to share my experiences here on the blog. I hope I can be brave enough to do that.

God bless us, every one.