Dealing with distress is difficult. By its very nature, distress is “great pain, acute suffering and extreme misfortune,” said Casey Radle, LPC, a therapist who specializes in anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
This serious pain “can hijack our ability to think straight.”
That’s because we shift into survival mode and don’t have access to the problem-solving part of our brains, said Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, a therapist in Houston, Texas.
“When we are in distress and lack feelings of safety, our thinking brain is hijacked by our emotional limbic system and we move into primitive drives to fight or flight. If we’re too scared, we freeze or get stuck as if we’re just trying to survive the ordeal. Because our thinking brain is offline, this can get very big and out of control.”
Naturally, it’s hard to deal with something so scary. And many of us turn to unhealthy habits — or excessive versions of healthy ones, such as over-exercising — to avoid the pain.
However, there are many relatively simple and healthy strategies. Below are nine tips.
1. Identify your needs.
“When we are in distress, we need something,” said Radle, who practices with Eddins at Eddins Counseling Group.
She gave these examples: We may have an emotional need to feel accepted or heard. We may have a tangible need to have more help around the house. We may have an environmental need for peace and quiet. We may have a psychological need to treat ourselves with kindness.
Naming your needs, Radle said, can be tough. In fact, most of her clients don’t know their needs. Instead, “They tend to get stuck on thoughts of, ‘I wish my life were different. I wish things weren’t this way. I wish I were more _____ or less ____. I just want to be happier.’”
When you’re feeling distressed, Radle suggested asking yourself: “What do I need right now?”
Your automatic response might be: “I need less stress in my life!” or “I just want to be happier!”
If so, keep asking questions: “What does that mean exactly? What does that look like? What does that feel like? What does that entail? How might that be achieved?”
2. Focus on what you want — not on what you don’t.
When thinking about your needs, it can be more helpful to focus on what you need, instead of what you don’t need, Radle said.
She gave this example: “Instead of saying, ‘I don’t want to feel lonely,’ come up with specific ways that you can feel more connected to, supported by, and engaged in your community, circle of friends, and/or family.”
3. Honor your needs.
After you discover what you need, honor it. When applicable, communicate those needs to others, Radle said.
“If you don’t clearly communicate your needs, no one will know how to support you.” We can’t expect people to read our minds, she said. “That isn’t fair to them nor to ourselves.”
4. Get moving.
“When we’re highly stressed moving can help pump more blood and oxygen to the brain and shift into our senses and surroundings to feel grounded and safe,” Eddins said.
What kind of movement you do depends on your preference and circumstance. For instance, if you’re feeling distressed at 3 a.m., it can help to stretch, walk around, jog in place or even wiggle your toes, she said.
5. Develop a nurturing voice.
According to Eddins, “Your inner nurturer starts by validating what you’re feeling [and] offers comforting and soothing statements [and hope].”
She shared these examples: “You’re a good person going through a hard time. You’ll get through this. Let’s just take it one moment at a time; it will be OK.”
You also might create a compassionate figure after a kind person you know, a spiritual guide or a fictional character, Eddins said. Turn to this figure when your thoughts are judgmental or self-critical, she said.
6. Reverse the “Golden Rule.”
Radle suggested reversing the Golden Rule, which states that we should treat others the way we’d like to be treated. “I find that most of my clients are far more compassionate towards others than they are towards themselves.”
Radle defined kindness as being gentle and honest and honoring our needs. This may look different for every person.
Kindness may include asking for help or saying yes or no, she said. For instance, you say yes to a massage and no to preparing a homemade dish for the office potluck.
Kindness may include “telling yourself it’s OK that you’ve gained 10 pounds, that you’re still beautiful and still worthy of attention and affection.”
It may include “acknowledging … that you did something that was hard for you to do, even if no one else noticed or even knew that it was a challenge for you.”
It may include “forgiving yourself for making a mistake and for not being perfect.”
7. Practice a soothing gesture.
“Place your hand over your heart, imagine a positive memory you’ve had and just breathe in and out of your heart, feeling the connection between your hand and your heart,” Eddins said.
8. Practice different perspectives.
When we’re distressed, pain from the past may get reactivated, Eddins said. Then we may “create a number of stories around what is happening, which can be harmful to us and also inaccurate.”
Instead, pause. Consider what you’d say to someone in the same situation, she said. “What would you say to a child? What other perspectives are possible? Can you think of three alternate neutral or positive explanations?”
9. Ground yourself.
“If your distress is so high that you’re feeling unsafe, and unable to access your other resources, you need to ground yourself first,” Eddins said. Grounding simply means anchoring yourself back to the present moment.
Eddins shared these grounding techniques:
- Run cool or warm water over your hands.
- Notice your body, such as practicing a body scan or clenching and releasing your fists.
- Notice five things you can hear; five things you see in the room; five things you sense, such as certain textures touching your skin.
- Remember words to an inspirational song, quote or poem that helps you feel better.
- Remember a safe place and describe it in detail using your senses.
- Count backwards in 7s or 9s.
- Visualize yourself gliding away on skates, away from the pain you’re currently feeling.
- Change the TV channel to a soothing show.
- Change the radio station to something pleasant.
- Imagine a wall as a buffer between you and your pain.
Dealing with distress isn’t easy. However, you can turn to many healthy, compassionate strategies for support.