Surviving the Holidays: Observation and Distress Tolerance

November 19, 2012

The Most Blunderful Time of the Year

I can’t believe Thanksgiving is almost here.  While the holiday season seems to sneak up on me every year, I feel particularly ambushed this year.  Perhaps this feeling is due to the combination of a late summer heat wave, a distracting election, and an early Thanksgiving.  Or perhaps it is because I just feel this way every year.  In any case there is no denying that the Holiday Season will soon descend upon us.

It’s no secret that the holiday season can be tough on our emotions.   As many of us prepare for upcoming visits with family and old friends I thought it might be a good time to talk about the DBT skill of distress tolerance.  Distress tolerance starts with the understanding that some times are just tough.  Our goal is to just get through the moment without doing something to make it worse.

So the “skill” of distress tolerance has two parts:  first we must understand the situation, and then we can do something to make it through the situation.   Now I know some of you eager beavers want to get right to the second part of distress tolerance and talk about what we can DO.  But hold on just one moment.  Let’s back up.  I really, truly, deeply believe that the first part of distress tolerance is 70% of the skill.

Pain + Resistance = Suffering

Let’s look at this first part more closely.  Put another way, the first part is saying some situations just suck.  Now don’t let any judgment sneak in there.  This is just a fact of life.  Drop those ideas like you caused the situation, or you are a victim of the situation.  It just is what it is.  In Buddhism this fact is known as one of the eight vicissitudes of life (see “Basic Concepts” in this link to learn more).  Every life has moments that suck.  Although Buddhism traditionally describes unpleasant moments using words like “painful” rather than “sucking.”  When I hear “painful” I think about stubbing a toe.  Personally, I am better at finding these moments in my own life when I describe them as just sucking.

You aren’t alone if you don’t like the idea that we should accept painful experiences.  That word “accept” can be so hard to …  well…  accept.  Our silly culture has told us that accepting a situation is deciding we are helpless to change it.   But this is just completely inaccurate.  Completely 100% not what I am saying.  We have to rearrange our understanding of the words “accept” and “resist” to understand how acceptance can decreasing our suffering and help us move forward.  Yes – we NEED acceptance to move forward.  It is the very act of not accepting a sucky situation that often keeps us stuck in that situation.

When we fight the truth of painful moments, our struggle sticks us to the pain like flies on flypaper, thus adding suffering.  When we can accept the truth, our body and mind can stop the struggle and find the space needed to help us through the pain.


Observing Our Resistance Un-fuses Us From Suffering. 

So hopefully I have your buy in that acceptance is a critical step in distress tolerance.  But we still are talking in the abstract.  Having spoken with many people on my couch about this concept, I’ve seen that we usually get the fact that some times in our lives are just going to stink.  But when we are actually IN one of those painful times we completely forget that this pain is just part of the journey. When a painful moment is revealed in the form of a tense Thanksgiving meal with our relatives we suddenly lose all wisdom.  As pain arises we reflexively reach for the pie, or wine bottle, or worse to fight the painful feelings that arise.   Right there!  That’s it.  That pushing away of pain is the moment of fusing yourself to it like a fly flinging itself onto the flypaper. Recognizing when that moment happens is where 70% of the distress tolerance occurs.

Watch for the moment when you first register that something sucky is occurring and resistance arises.  For example, what usually sets you off about the Thanksgiving holiday?  Perhaps it is the long drive, perhaps it is the pre-dinner conversation with your great-uncle, perhaps it is just being out of your routine (I’m looking at you here, Frances).  Observe the resistance to pain that has become a reflex within you.  It can be hard to find at first because resisting pain can become an overlearned skill that is hard to see (like riding a bike).  But you will find it with practice.  The resistance might come in body sensations like a stomachache, tensing muscles, wringing of hands.  The resistance might come in your thoughts becoming more judgmental or rigid (Thoughts like “Why can’t Aunt Winthrop keep her mouth shut!” or “Why do I come here every year when I know my dad will just ridicule me…”).

Don’t resist these reactions to pain.  Resisting the resistance just compounds our suffering!  Instead, observe.  “My stomach is tight because I am worried Aunt Winthrop will bring up the election with Cousin Patchouli.”  Take a deep slow breath.   That’s not figurative.  ACTUALLY take a slow deep breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth.  And perhaps even allow yourself a little smile knowing you have done the hard work of finding your resistance.   Congratulations! Now we get to the DOING part of distress tolerance.

Distress Tolerance Tool Kit  

Now that you’ve done the hard work of finding your resistance it’s time to choose what you are going to do to get through the moment without making it worse.  Note how I didn’t say, “make it better.”  Distress tolerance teaches us the wisdom that some times just suck and making it better is not in our control.  What is in our control is choosing what we are going to do to help ourselves get through the situation without making it worse.  So this year instead of jumping in to referee between those relatives that argue every year (which never makes them stop and just makes you feel more angry and helpless), let’s review some other things that you can do.

Here are some of my favorites:

  •  Breathe.  ALWAYS start by taking a deep breath.
  • Take a ten minute walk outside, noticing all the scene around you.  Can you see the breeze going through the trees?  What are the colors around you?
  • Play 54321.  Take a moment to:

SEE FIVE things around you. (I generally like to choose a color or shape to direct my attention on something)

HEAR FOUR things around you.

FEEL THREE things around you. (Don’t just use your hands.  What do you feel with your skin?  Feel your toes warm in their socks.  Feel your back pressed against the chair.)

SMELL TWO things around you. (Even just sniffing your shirt discreetly counts.)

TASTE ONE thing around you. (Or at least just direct your attention to your tongue.  Is there any taste to be found?)

I love this game because it can be done around others without them knowing you are doing it.  And this can be done over and over if needed.  And redirecting our attention to the very smallest details of the present moment is a great antidote to getting stuck in our suffering.

  •  Draw a mandala on your napkin.  This is a great activity to keep your hands and your mind occupied.

  • Slip away from ten minutes and use your phone to visit some of these sites:
  • Make your own soothing soundtrack.  Add exactly what you want to hear in your nature background.  Slight rain with some waves in the background, seagulls in the mountains – it’s up to you.

  • Be transported randomly anywhere around the world.  This website randomly chooses street views from google maps.  You can choose which continent or continents you’d like to see.  Even Antarctica.

  • Towards the bottom of this page there are great multiplication games to keep your mind occupied, like flying a plane through the clouds to answer multiplication questions.

  •  Who doesn’t want to look at pictures of cuddly animals – kittens, puppies, and more.

Play around and find what works for you – be creative.  Try to get at least three options that you can use the next time you feel like the pain of a situation is getting too big.

Just One Starfish in the Sea

When we are in pain we can get caught up in our own stories.  So I’ll leave you with this thought.  Remember that you are just one little being on this great big planet.  Every being is just doing their best with what they know.  No matter what you are doing, meanwhile there are starfish crawling over the ocean floor, baby birds hatching, killer whales teaching their young how to hunt, arctic foxes feeling the wind in their fur, and somewhere otters are asleep holding hands.  Each of our lives is just one teeny tiny thread in the great tapestry of life.  And hopefully you now have a little more skill to get through some of the tougher parts of your contribution to the tapestry.


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