8 Ways to Cope with Distress
By: Lorraine Hackett
Updated: 03 July 2018
A bad grade.
Breaking something expensive or timeless.
A computer crashing.
Burning your breakfast when you are running late.
Missing an important holiday.
Your phone dying.
Moving to a new home.
Not landing a job you applied for.
Forgetting your wallet.
A medical diagnosis.
At some point in your life, you will find yourself in a state of distress. No matter how trivial something may seem, it can still have a massive effect on your emotional well being.
For those with mental health concerns, the reactions can be even more severe. Those of us facing depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders often find distress to be a constant, uncomfortable state of being. The smallest trigger, such as your phone dying, can often have the same level of distress as a larger life event, such as an illness or a divorce.
Furthermore, those of us without the financial, emotional, or physical freedoms to use some recommended methods for self-soothing often find ourselves trapped in further anxiety when seeking help. “I can’t afford this right now” is a common thought. “I should be doing something else” is even more frequent. What it boils down to is the idea that “I don’t deserve this.” Distress passes, trauma happens. It is what we do in the deepest despair that defines us.
Coping mechanisms are universal, everyone has one or a few. The most important thing is to acknowledge that they exist, and ensure that they are not detrimental to your health, your life, or your wallet. Learning what they are and what works for you is crucial.
For those of us who lack healthy coping mechanisms, or find that functioning independently is not working anymore, here are some universally applicable tips to help get through any form of distress you face.
- Use your senses. Listen to something soothing, like the music you love or just the birds in the trees. Take a warm bath, treat yourself to a self-facial massage, like the 2-minute one found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-OKVq0BH0Q. If you can, indulge yourself in a treat usually deprived. Potato chips go a long way! Take a detour on your way home to smell the flowers in the park, or breathe in the smell of fresh rain as it washes the streets clean.
- Safe physical sensations. When panic takes over, it is nearly impossible to recognize what is happening to or around you. Find safe physical distractions to hone in on when in the throes of panic or anxiety. Hold an ice cube, snap a rubber band on your wrist, or eat something sour. These sensations help to ground you in times of whirlwind distress.
- Compare your situation. Usually, this is adamantly discouraged. But when in the throes of distress, look back on your life. Remember a time that you felt this way, or worse, and recognize that it too passed. Marvel at your strength then, and remember that you are only stronger now.
- Create competing emotions. If you are feeling sad, watch a funny movie, or read the comics section of the newspaper. Watchdog and cat videos, or birds becoming friends. If you are nervous or stressed, listen to some soothing music, or doodle on a loose piece of paper. Drink a cup of calming tea, or breathe in some soothing scents like lavender or spearmint. If you are hysterical, grab something soft. Hold it until the wave passes, and then marvel that its delicateness lasted through the storm.
- Focus on your thoughts. Count to 10, recite a poem in your head, read a book, or watch a funny show to give your mind something to focus on. A mantra is usually a good way to narrow your thoughts. A favourite when anxious is, “This will pass. This will end.”
- Burn your distress. We often find that these causes of distress are beyond our control. Acknowledge this by writing your trauma on a piece of paper, crumpling it up, and either throw it away or burn it. Burning it lets you watch the problem turn into dust, tiny particles that can do no harm. Let it go, and breathe deeper.
- Activity. Engage in an activity that requires thought. Finally, sew that button on that you have been putting off, colour, begin and finish a small project, use your hobbies to protect you, cook, do some school work, write a loved one a letter.
- Contribute. Focus on something other than yourself. Volunteer, smile at a stranger, do a good deed, make a sandwich for your little brother, bring your mom a cup of coffee, hold the door for someone rushing to get in, help a mother with her stroller on the bus. Let their gratitude fill you, and recognize that even though it feels like there’s nothing left, you still have something to give.
Without taking 12 pages to explore the social constructs that force us to devalue ourselves for the sake of ‘success,’ simply stated, you deserve it. You are worth it.
30 minutes out of your day will not kill anyone. If you take 30 minutes a day to care for yourself, you have done yourself a great service. Take 15 minutes in the morning to enjoy a calm, relaxing breakfast, even if it is simply coffee or tea. Take 15 minutes on your commute home at night to breathe, and reflect on the positives in your life. Take 15 minutes before bed, jot down some positive thoughts about the people that surround you.
You are worth it.
*Anxiety, panic disorders, and depression are serious conditions. If you or someone you love find that these feelings do not pass with time, feel as though control has been lost, or simply need to talk to somebody about it, MyMind is here. Confidential, self-referral sessions are available with our trained professionals both in-person and online. Please do not hesitate to seek help. We are here for you.
**Coping mechanisms recommended by Therapist Aid, full worksheet found here: https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/dbt-distress-tolerance-skills.
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