Coping with Distressing Emotions

Short Term Solutions

The most effective ways to cope with distressing emotions are also some of the unhealthiest ways to cope. Marsha Linehan, developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a form of cognitive therapy, teaches four main ways to cope with distress:

  1. Distraction
  2. Self-Soothing
  3. Improve the Moment
  4. Work out the Pros and Cons


For example, avoiding for a short period, also called distracting, but only temporarily, can be a method of coping with distress.

There are several ways to distract yourself temporarily from whatever is distressing you. One is by getting involved in some activity such as a sport, cooking, gardening, going fishing, go for a shopping trip and other activities that can take your mind off of the distressful event for a while.

You can also distract by contributing. Do some volunteer work at a dog shelter or with Alzheimer patients – Whatever makes you feel useful. You could offer to babysit so that a friend can go out or surprise someone by helping them out with a chore they have to do.

Another method of distracting yourself is to make comparisons between your problem and the problems of other people. You can also compare your current problems with previous problems in your own past that show how far you have come. Watch the news. There are always people on the news who have problems worse than yours.

There is a technique called opposite emotions. Read a book or watch a movie that portrays the opposite of the emotions that you are feeling. Everyone should find a movie or a story that makes them laugh every time they see or hear it. That way you know just where to go to if sadness or anger is distressing you.

Distract yourself temporarily by pushing the situation away. Every time something brings the emotion to your attention, turn your mind away from it. We will discuss other uses of turning your mind later on.

Some people use the technique of writing the problem down and putting it in a box or a book and then up on a shelf. You can come back later and get it when your stronger, but for now leave it alone.

Distract with other thoughts. Some examples are counting to ten (or 100) or counting the tiles on the floor or the ceiling. Reading, watching videos or movies, doing puzzles, writing poetry or prose – just keep your thoughts away from your pain. Many people who are devout in their religion, recite whole sections of their sacred writing.

You can distract yourself physically with sensations like a cold rag or ice on the back of your neck. My doctor suggested a bag of frozen peas. Put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it when you need to be jarred away from your distressing situation. You could listen to loud music and dance, take a hot or cold shower or go swimming. Use these activities to jar yourself away from your distress.

I often try to experience the distressing emotion for a while and then push it away for a little while. As soon as I get my bearings, I will go back to the distress – going back and forth until I can tolerate the pain. Because what would happen if I decided not to tolerate it? A lot of Suffering!


Have you ever seen a child or an elderly person sitting in a stressful situation such as an emergency room, gently rocking themselves back and forth? Perhaps you’ve done it yourself. Even in middle age when a particularly traumatic event has occurred I have gone to bed and rocked myself back and forth as I cried myself to sleep.

It’s soothing. That’s why we rock our babies when they are upset. It often calms them enough to help them drift off to sleep.

There is another soothing activity – sleeping – if you can. It gets you through some rough times. Remember in the old movies when some tragedy had befallen a family the doctor, who made house calls, recommended “something to calm the heroines nerves. (That was before we knew the repercussions of using drugs rather than self-control.)

Ice cream is an example of self-soothing. In fact, any kind of pleasurable eating. You might see smokers increase the frequency of their lighting up or even former smokers asking for a cigarette.

All of the above can be overdone. What will happen if you try to sleep your way through grief? You will lose a lot of time and when you finally can’t sleep anymore, you still have the grief to deal with.

Some more healthy techniques might be to take a hot bath with fragrances meant to relax our bodies. Listen to music that makes you relax. Perhaps it will be slow and dreamy or maybe you could play some up-beat music and your tension away.

You could go get a massage or maybe someone in your household could rub your feet and hands. If you can’t afford to pay full price for it, there are massage schools that charge a discounted rate.

Meditation is an excellent method of soothing the distress of a tragedy. I use guided meditation so I don’t have to work at it too hard. I just let my mind follow the master and relax.

Simply breathing consciously – mindfully – is soothing. There are several methods that work well. I suggest you try a couple of different kinds on a regular basis so that in a crisis you can automatically call on one.  Frankly, if you are one of those people who has trouble falling asleep at night, a breathing technique each evening might be very helpful.

When you turn to meditation or breathing (which is meditation when done mindfully) there are a couple of tips you will want to follow first.

  • Go to the toilet.
  • Put on loose and comfortable clothing.
  • Lie or sit somewhere with your whole body supported.
  • Make yourself completely comfortable and close your eyes.

Many people believe that you need to sit in a special position or do something else mystical to get meditation to work. Not so. The most important thing is to be totally supported and comfortable.

Visualizing a safe and comfortable place is also a good way to self-sooth. Close your eyes, then mentally scan your body to become aware of any places where there is tension. Take a deep breath in and relax as you let the breath out. I find that if I can get my shoulders to relax, the rest of my body usually comes along.

Improving the Moment: Imagery

You can use imagery to create a scene that is different from the present situation. See a place that you would like to be. It should be safe, relaxing and beautiful. Let yourself feel that you are really in this place. See the colors, smell the fragrances, feel the temperature or the air movement. In “shrink” school, we used to call it our “safe place”. You have to do some deep psychological work when you’re learning to help other people so we frequently would escape to our safe place just to get some momentary relief.

Some of us escaped to the ocean, some to some public building that made them feel awed. Some would escape to their church or temple, others to that ever-popular place on the beach where the sound of the waves and the feel of the breeze was the closest to nirvana that they could imagine.

I could never get into the beach. I’m from the Pacific Northwest and here the beach is too cold if there is a breeze blowing, and too hot if it isn’t. I also have a problem with sand – and sunburn. I’m very fair.

My favorite place is in my bed. It is all made up with 100% natural fibers like cotton and silk. The room temperature is about 65 – just so I need a light cover over me.

Once you are comfortable, imagine that you know just how to take care of the situation you’re in. Imagine that you are the strong, wise hero or heroine in the story and you can figure out how to save the day.

If you practice this from time to time you will find that it will begin to work for you. Things do start to go better and you are stronger. If you practice feeling like the winner, you’ll find that you can cope better and take care of things.

See yourself as doing a good job, keep my cool, and deal with the situation in a good way. It will help you handle the situation effectively.

Improve the Moment: Creating Meaning

One of the most popular methods in cognitive therapy is to change the way you feel by changing the way you think – especially about you’re situation.

It’s not always easy to find meaning in ugly situations. It is going to take some time and work. It is what we call making lemonade out of lemons.

Here are some situations that classically get turned around in stories. Imagine them and see what you can do with them.

  1. Being snowbound.
  2. Getting stuck in the mud in your friend’s driveway.
  3. Burning a batch of cookies.

The more you imagine these scenarios and work out how to make it come out well, the better you will be when the situation is real.

Improve the Moment: Prayer and Meditation

There are at least two kinds of prayer. There are supplications when you are asking for something to change of improve. These are the “why me” and the “distress” prayers. You’re basically asking some higher power to have mercy on you. When there is no higher power, there is another type of prayer.

Professor Linehan calls it the “acceptance” prayer.

Open yourself to what is as you pray to your higher-self. This is not begging for the suffering away or asking “why me?” It is a way to be present with your distress. Stop pushing it away – stop fighting it – and experience it. This doesn’t mean that you approve of it, or think that it’s OK, only that you accept it.

This is the way Ritual Humanists pray!

Improve the Moment: Stress Reduction and Relaxation

Relaxation and reduction of stress are great ways to improve the moment. Relaxing changes the distress response. I remember being sent to a pain specialist about a year after the accident that caused my chronic pain condition. He gave me a paper he had published about emotional stress adding to physical pain. He said that instead of tensing up when the pain was bad, that I should relax into it. That would make it better. He wasn’t talking about the physical pain being better, but that once you accept it, the pain doesn’t have the control over you that it does when you fight it. Revisit some of the relaxation techniques we mentioned earlier in Distress Tolerance. You can also listen to relaxation tapes, exercise hard, take some hot milk or hot tea or listen to music.

Improve the Moment: Mindfulness

Mindfulness means focusing on the one thing that you are doing right now, in the present moment, without judgement as if you were an outsider observing the whole situation without taking sides. It give you some time to settle down and calm down.

Just as you know that ten minutes at a time of exercise will strengthen muscled, ten minutes a day of meditation will strengthen you concentration. Just as in physical exercise, you will need instruction in procedures, energy and time on a regular basis for the long time to build up your concentration muscle.

You will also impact all other skills that use your focus and concentration. It will change your life.

Our suffering is made worse by remembering past suffering and worrying about future suffering. If you stay in the moment and focus on what is happening in the here and now, or suffering will be greatly reduced. Practicing mindfulness on a daily basis will make it much easier and more natural when you need it in a crisis.

Improve the Moment: Chanting

Different sounds have different effects on human psyche. If a soft sound of wind rustling through leaves soothes our nerves, the musical note of running stream enchants our heart, thunders may cause awe and fear. Dr.Gervert Benson observed years ago that certain mantras help induce the relaxation response, causing reduction a heartbeat, brain waves and respiration. Other mantras enable the tongue to stimulate the acupuncture meridians inside the mouth) particularly on the roof thus enhancing help. (Dr. David Shananoff-Khalsa)

In his book Powerful Self-Healing Techniques, Dr. Ranjie Singe found that the chanting of specific mantras caused the release of the hormone melatonin and is investigating the importance of this in the healing process. He recorded many benefits including shrinkage of tumors and enhanced sleep because of this.

There is no question that sound can alter molecular structure. In the 1960’s, a medical doctor named Hans Jenny, conducted experiments that showed that would have actually created from in carious substances such as plastics, liquids and water. He would place these substances – powder, etc. on a steel plate and then using a crystal oscillator, vibrate these plates with sound. He called this work Cymatics.

Work Out the Pros and Cons

In this exercise we not only work out the Pros and Cons, but we look at the cons and pros. It really felt tedious when I first started practicing this but it really does get you to look at your situation from some directions that you might ordinarily won’t.

      Tolerate the Distress   
      Not Tolerate the Distress   


In other words, it’s the pros and cons of tolerating the DISTRESS of a situation and the pros and cons of not tolerating the DISTRESS of a situation.

(Members can go to the Members' PDFs page for a printable PDF version of this chart.)

On our next page we will teach you how to find the events activating your Destructive Emotions.