What is distress tolerance and why is it important?

Distress tolerance is referred to as “the perceived capacity to withstand negative emotional and/or other aversive states, such as physical discomfort” (Leyro et al., 2010). Simply put, distress tolerance is our ability to handle negative experiences in a way that is consistent with our goals.

Distress tolerance is important for a number of different reasons. Life can be tough. And we don’t want to feel out of control each time something bad happens. Acting based on our emotional responses can sometimes lead to even worse outcomes. For example, in a fight with partner, you might end up saying something that hurts your partner or the relationship when what you really wanted was to bring up an issue to build a healthier and stronger relationship.

Therefore, it’s important to build resilience to distressing situations to ensure that we can handle them in an effective manner. Moreover, increasing our distress tolerance can be helpful in feeling less vulnerability and more self-efficient in different situations.

In this post, I talk about a few different things you can do to increase your tolerance to distress.

Skills for dealing with different distress levels on the emotional thermometer

Emotion regulation work tend to judge the level of emotional distress a person is experiencing on a thermometer running from 0 (feeling completely good) to 100 (absolute crisis).

Having different tools in your toolbox that can support you at different levels of the emotional thermometer can be a great way to skillfully deal with a number of different situations. For example, if you are in crisis (90-100%), then there are emotion regulation strategies such as STOP and TIPP. These are crisis management strategies designed to bring you out of intense distress to ground yourself. For example, TIPP strategies include reducing temperature use ice packs or intense exercise to run out your intense emotions.

On the other hand, distraction strategies can be helpful for more lower distress (e.g., 30-50%) that is chronic. Chronic stressors are situations that you are stressed about but don’t really have an immediate solution, such as waiting for the results of an exam or having a scary presentation coming up in the next week. For example, you might take some time to engage in a fun activity or take a nice warm bath. The article attached gives you some ideas on what activities might be helpful  

Finally, mindfulness strategies may be helpful for dealing with situations that are in the middle of the emotional thermometer. These are a way to take a moment to pause and sit with our current experience before responding in a way that is consistent with our values, rather than reacting based on our emotions. Check this article out if you’re interested in the What and How of mindfulness!

man pulling at his hair
“Destress? I thought you said distress!
Photo by Ryan Snaadt on Unsplash

Nourishing ourselves to increase distress tolerance

Our ability to resist against negative experiences depend on how vulnerable we feel. Our emotional vulnerability can be higher and lower depending on how nourished or depleted we are in life. For instance, we would be less resistant to emotional turmoil if we were hungry, did not sleep well the last night, or had physical ailments.

The PLEASE skills are a great tool to optimize areas of our lives that can be helpful to nourish ourselves to feel less emotionally vulnerable. It can also be important to determine whether there are specific activities, people, or places that nourish you. For instance, spending time with certain family members/friends or visiting a park that calms you.

Avoiding depleting activities that increase vulnerability

In the same vein, we want to avoid activities that deplete us and increase our vulnerability to emotional situations. For example, some family members might nourish us and give us positive feelings, whereas other family members (maybe an insufferable cousin) may take away from our resources. Consider making a list of 3 things that nourish you and 3 things that deplete you. You can use goal-setting exercises to plan to actively make changes in your life by including nourishing activities and removing depleting activities. Evaluate and see how that impacts your ability to tolerate distress!

dad and his children
“Candy? She’s an absolutely joy to spend time with.
Ryan? well…he’s a bit more on the mischievous side and takes more out of me.
Love them both though!
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


  • Distress tolerance refers to our ability to handle negative experiences and act in a way that is consistent with what is important to us, rather than being overwhelmed
  • There are different emotion regulation strategies that we can use at different stages of the emotional thermometer
  • Adding nourishing activities and removing depleting activities to our lives can support greater distress tolerance overall

Best wishes,


Featured photo credits