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How to Manage Stress During a Big Life Change

September 10, 2020
Josh King, PsyD
Josh King, PsyD

When trying to make healthy behavioral changes, like drinking less or eating better, it can be very helpful to try and limit your exposure to things that make it harder for you to maintain your changes. For example, you may want to avoid spending time in or around bars or with certain friends, as they may be triggering for you – they may make it harder for you to keep up the changes that you’ve started to make.

Avoiding people, places and situations that make it hard for you to engage in new behaviors is a really helpful way to begin the change process. Unfortunately, some stressors simply can’t be avoided. When you’re presented with the unavoidable stress of life, what can you do to tolerate that stress while maintaining your (also stressful!) behavior changes?

Enter coping skills, specifically distress tolerance skills from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). These skills will help you tolerate the difficult moments in life that you can’t prepare for or escape from. It’s important to note that these skills won’t necessarily make you feel better, or make the stress go away. There will always be times when nothing will make you feel fully “better”. 

Instead, by using these skills, you can keep yourself from ruminating, getting worked up, and making an already difficult situation even harder.  By keeping yourself on more even ground, you improve your odds of being able to maintain your larger behavioral change goals. For example: it can be difficult to decide to remain connected to healthy goals, like sobriety or a low-carb diet, when you are really stressed and a drink (or a cigarette or a doughnut) feels like it will help calm you down.  In these moments, using a distress tolerance skill instead of reaching for the drink (or doughnut) can keep you true to your goals and less uncomfortable!

Distress tolerance skills are broken up into three categories: skills that help distract you from the situation at hand, skills that help soothe you and calm you physically and emotionally, and skills that help make a difficult situation nominally “better,” which often also means more tolerable. 

Distraction Skills

Have you ever noticed that sometime you may feel really focused on (and stressed by) something because it feels very important, then you get sidetracked on another important item, and when you come back to the first thing it feels way less pressing and easier to face? This is a pretty common phenomenon, and it has to do with our body’s fight/flight response and how we can build up situations to be much more than they need to be.

The idea behind distraction skills is to take a few minutes (or maybe even a few hours or a day!) to disconnect your brain from the thing that you’re focused on and let it focus on something else for a while. The hope is that when you come back to the first thing, it will feel a little smaller and easier to tolerate.

To do this skill, you need to pick an alternative behavior that is engrossing and uses up all your spare brainpower. It’s not going to be a very effective distracter if you can do it and still have half your brain thinking about the original thing that was stressing you out!

When trying to use this skill, pick something that makes it very hard to think of something else at the same time, like vigorous exercise, watching a thought-provoking television show, or even something like counting backwards from 100 by 7’s. However, try not to pick something that’s so hard that you want to avoid it or can’t do it.  After you’ve tried a little bit of distraction, go back to your original task or situation and see if it’s a bit easier to tolerate. If not, try another skill.

Self Soothing

We all know about comfort foods, those yummy meals and snacks that just bring you a sense of warmth throughout your body and deep into your soul. Maybe it’s your mom’s fried chicken, or your favorite restaurant’s amazing chicken soup – whatever it is, when you eat it, it brings you comfort. That is the embodiment of self-soothing, and food is only one way to get it!

If we can think of the essence of what makes comfort food so darn comforting, you’d say it fills you with a sense of ease, peace and, well, comfort! So, let’s transfer that to each of the five senses. You can think of taste (some other things might be that feeling after you brush your teeth, or when you pop in a mint), but consider also coming up with soothing items for sight, smell, sound, and touch (especially if the goal you are trying to maintain involves food choices). Can you identify that favorite cozy sweater or soft t-shirt, those pictures of nature that always make you smile (even when you don’t want to), and those songs that when they play, the whole world seems right to you?

Of course you can! And, once you have, make a list of them all somewhere and make them easily accessible. The goal is to have many self-soothing options identified and available for you when you need them, so that you don’t have to spend time looking for that song you like so much or thinking “what makes me feel good when I’m really stressed?”

Improve The Moment

Remember that old public speaking trick where they encourage you to imagine everyone in the audience in their underwear? That’s an example of taking an inherently stressful moment and making it just a little bit better.  If everyone’s in their underwear while you are speaking it’s, A) hysterical and B) a little less daunting. Changing the mental imagery you have of the moment, pretending to be having that meeting while you’re on the way to your own tropical island, or even just cheerleading yourself (“You’ve Got This!”) can make a moment that stinks just a tiny bit better. And sometimes, a tiny bit better is all you can really ask for and all you really need.

So, the next time that life sneaks up on you with stress and difficulties that you can’t really avoid, try using these distress tolerance skills to help you navigate difficult moments without making them worse than they already are. With practice, these can help you feel more comfortable dealing with difficult situations without resorting to using unhealthy coping strategies like having an extra drink or binging on nachos, and improve your chances of maintaining the changes that will lead you to the life you want.

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