Managing Distress

In the last post I wrote, I made an attempt to define what distress is from a psychological perspective and give some insight into what it means to be able to tolerate or not tolerate that distress.  What I hope to do here is give a general outline of ways in which we can learn to be better at tolerating out distress, especially as it relates to our eating behaviors. 

As most of us already know, health is really about making sure we feed our bodies well and making sure we move our bodies well. At CrossFit Torrent, we get a lot of great help and encouragement about how to move our bodies well when we are in the gym. But being able to feed ourselves well is a different challenge. Hopefully, this post will give you at least one tip or tool that you can use.

Most of us might think that controlling what we put in our mouths is about willpower or self-control. As a behavior analyst, I hate these terms because it makes it seem like we either have it or not. I prefer to think about things as either learned or unlearned, because that can give us hope that we can learn a new skill. Such as learning how to cook and consume nourishing food. 

But learning a new skill can be distressing. Especially learning new eating behaviors and patterns. The reason it can be so distressing is because of our past learning history. We eat in the way that we eat because we have learned to behave that we. For those of us that eat to relieve or avoid distress changing those patterns of behavior means that we have to stop eating familiar foods, stop eating comforting foods, stop eating foods that are easy to prepare, or food that is within reach. And this is distressing. So how do we deal with distress?

One type of therapy that specifically addresses this is called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). It was developed years ago for the treatment of a variety of mental health issues and has been shown to be very effective. One small part of DBT specifically addresses how to increase the ability to tolerate distress. Wiser & Telch (1999) outline different ways a person can help tolerate distress. These are effective self-care techniques that a person can engage in. In distressing moments it may be of help to engage in one of the following:

  1. Distraction techniques (for example, doing hobbies; writing letters; visiting with friends; taking walks; creating alternate emotional states by reading particular books and/or watching specific movies).
  2. Self-soothing strategies (for example, lighting candles, watching stars at night, listening to nature sounds, smelling fresh flowers, mindfully tasting a strong herb tea, petting the cat, snuggling with a favorite soft blanket).
  3. Improving-the-moment methods (for example, finding meaning in the distressing situation; being one’s own cheerleader; engaging in spiritual thoughts or prayer).
  4. Pros and Cons (for example, making a list of the pros and cons of either tolerating or not tolerating the distress)


Another important piece to dealing with distress is acknowledging that sometimes we cannot do self-care and we have to find ways to make it through the distressing moment. The familiar mantra “one day at a time” or “taking things minute by minute” is tapping into this. Based on the years I have spent studying maladaptive eating habits I now have come to believe that this is absolutely the hardest skill to learn and often the most needed skill to have. 

Psychology calls this process, acceptance. Wiser & Telch (1999) write that “acceptance strategies encourage people to oppose their natural impulse to fight emotionally or behaviorally against the inescapable situation that they find themselves in by psychologically embracing the moment with open hearts and minds, just as the moment truly is, replete with pain. Acceptance implies neither approval nor passivity; it does, however, signify a deep accepting of the reality of the situation as it is. The assumption underpinning these methods is that when a painful situation is unavoidable, efforts at avoidance often transform the pain of the situation into the even less tolerable experience of suffering.”

What this is saying in plain English, is that sometimes our emotional and psychological distress is big and we have to accept that we are going to be distressed. That acceptance will lessen the emotional burden and make it easier to endure the distressing event. For example, when we are trying to lose weight inevitably we will feel hunger. Feeling slight hunger is distressing and unpleasant, but we have to accept that it is part of the process. Sometimes we can distract ourselves or engage in self-care and sometimes we must simply endure that hunger, much like we endure a long WOD. By approaching hunger with acceptance we are shifting it from suffering to something that we can successfully tolerate.

In the next post, I will try to give some examples of what all of this might look like when put into use. But let me leave you with the following thought. Learning is by definition painful and will involve failure. And even once these skills are learned they are not magic. You will still experience distress, but you may be better able to manage it. Getting to this place will take time and coaching and practice, the same way that learning to clean or snatch takes time and coaching and practice. And finally, even those these skills may not ever work like a magic bullet, they can help and they can help you reach your health and fitness goals, whatever those may be. 


Meredith A. Holland, MS, BCBA



Meredith holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with an emphasis on counseling psychology and behavior analysis. She is a PhD Student in Psychology with an emphasis in behavior analysis. She is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and a Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo Valley Community College


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