Practicing Distress Tolerance

I woke up this morning with a terrible caffeine withdrawal headache. Due to this, I was profoundly grumpy. All I wanted at that moment was to get a coffee and make the headache go away. But I am trying to substantially reduce my caffeine intake – simply because my body feels better when I do not have it every day. As I stomped around my house getting ready for work, cursing at everything that was annoying me, I listened to the usual tussle inside my head.

“Maybe I’ll just have one more coffee today. Just one more. I can always not have it tomorrow. I can really get started on this tomorrow. It’s not that big of a deal anyways.” As this rationalizing of my craving went round and round I tried to let an alternate voice get stronger and louder. 

The voice that said, “You value your health and you value living inside a body that feels healthy and strong. Coffee makes you feel like junk and makes your joints hurt. Your short term goal is to run 2 miles on your own this week and to run 4 miles on the weekend. Drinking coffee is not in line with these goals and is not in line with what you value in life.” This counter-argument to my craving was helpful, but it was not magic. So I tried other coping strategies.

I texted some friends who knew what my goals were and I knew would support me. I vented my frustration, I said I really hated that I was doing this to myself and that I might cave and have a coffee. My accountability buddies gave me encouragement and that helped a little bit too. 

As I gathered up all my stuff to leave my house I said to myself, “Ok, this is going to suck. You are going to drive past your favorite coffee shop on the way to work, you are going to feel an enormous amount of distress, and it will be the worst.” And then I left.

As I drove to work it was exactly as I predicted, but instead of caving like I usually do, I embraced my distress. I acknowledged that I was experiencing pain and I felt the physical sensations of distress inside my body. There was a tightness in my throat, a craving in my belly, and a sense of sadness that I was not getting the thing that I wanted in that exact moment. I drove and sat with these sensations, thoughts, and feelings. I thought of the mantra my fellow psychologist and friend has, “I am willing to feel discomfort and take action.” This is exactly what I was doing. 

Once I got to work, I felt slightly better. I felt empowered that I had accomplished a goal that I had for myself. I knew that this was a mini victory. But this did not fully overpower my distress. I still kept having cravings, I still had to deal with the voice in my head telling me to cave, I still had to accept my distress and continue to act in accordance with my goals and values.  

I share this short story with you to give an example of what living with distress looks like. There are many different ways a person can deal with distress and at the end of the day, no way is superior to the other. We as humans have to constantly face and fight our little daily battles. Some are easier than others. The hard part about dealing with the battles we may have about consuming food and drinks is that this battle is often fought alone. 

The beauty of CrossFit is that we have company when we suffer through a WOD. We have a coach and our friends cheering us on. This is not the case when it comes to changing eating and drinking behaviors. So we must become our own coach, we must seek out our friends to help cheer us on, and we must embrace the inevitable distress that we will feel.


I believe that the psychology behind acceptance, accountability, goal setting, and living in accordance with our values can help us walk through our distress and come out on the other side. It is not magic, it takes hard work and discomfort, but it can empower us and get us where we want to be. 

I will leave you with one final thought, one that I share with my students. We as humans have the capacity to feel a myriad of complex emotions. The fact that we have this capacity lets us know that all of our feelings, the fun ones and the miserable ones, have value, meaning and lessons to teach us. Distress teaches us that something is not right. But the ability to feel distress and move through it teaches us that we are strong.  


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 Ph.D. 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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