Responding in Three Stages

I have written before about seeing addiction as a maladaptive response to distress. Seen in this way, addiction is chemical coping– habitually using a substance in response to distress. Distress is an inevitable part of life, and one of the key strategies of recovery is learning to respond to stress and distress in a productive way. Whether or not you are someone that has struggled with addiction, struggling with distress is a universal part of the human experience, and learning to respond to distress in a productive way is a part of living a healthy, happy life. Moreover, we have all found ourselves in situations when we respond to distress in less than optimal ways.

This post is going to focus on a framework for thinking about responding to distress. Ideally, this will be helpful in identifying what you do that works in your stress response, and identifying what parts of your response need to grow and expand.

Let’s think about distress in three parts. The first part is the source of distress itself. This is what we are probably most familiar with– but this is the problem (whatever it is). This might be a history of trauma, an argument with someone, finances, misunderstandings with people, a plan not turning out the way we had hoped… the list is endless, Usually– instinctively– when we encounter a problem our natural inclination is to try and simply solve the problem– and therebay eliminate the source of distress. If we are having a fight with someone, and we can resolve our differences, we generally also find that our distress goes away. Hurrah! If we are having trouble paying bills, and we make adjustments to our finances so that our budget balances, we can no longer have to worry about money and the distress stops. This is a great strategy, and works a huge portion of the time. The best way to not be worrying about a problem is to solve the problem!

Unfortunately, we often find ourselves in situations where the source of the distress cannot be fixed, or fixing the source takes time. Then, we find ourselves in a position of needing to live with that distress for some period of time. In spite of the fact that all is not well, we are in a position where we must continue to function. This is the second part, what I’ll call distress tolerance. At this phase, we have to learn how to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings we are having.

There are many ways to accomplish this. Meditation can be a very useful technique, as the practice of just noticing thoughts and feelings helps us recognize that these thoughts and feelings are not permanent. Practicing sitting with distress is useful – the more we come to realize that distress does not necessarily mean a catastrophe, the more we are able to live with it. Adaptability is one of our species’ superpowers. Healthy living patterns help here too– it’s much easier to tolerate discomfort when we have had a full night’s sleep, filled our body with healthy food, live in a rich social network, spend time outdoors, and engage in physical activity.

For all of us, even when we have a high distress tolerance, the amount of distress that we are feeling sometimes exceeds our ability to manage it. What then? How do we respond when we feel we have reached our breaking point, and something’s got to give? For people with a history of substance abuse, this is when relapse might happen. For all of us though, this is when we might notice eating unhealthy foods to comfort ourselves, increasing alcohol or marijuana use, more time on phones or playing video games– anything to try and feel better. But our response to being overwhelmed does not have to be maladaptive– there are a whole range of behaviors we can choose to engage in that will make us feel good. Going camping, playing games, exercising, going for a drive, talking to friends, taking a trip… the list is endless. We have to be able to do something to feel better, and we have to have a good idea of what that something is; otherwise, we pick up whatever is around and convenient.

One way of visualizing this is a cup filled with water, where the distress is the water, and our goal is to prevent the cup from overflowing. Solving the problems we face is taking water out of the cup. Getting a larger cup that can hold more water is increasing our distress tolerance. And having a plan ready to go when the cup starts to overflow is having healthy coping strategies available to us when things become too much.

All of these are important strategies, and all of these are things we all do. Viewing stress management through this lens might help clarify where we already have good skills in place (I’m good at solving problems!), and where we might need to grow (it drives me crazy when there’s unresolved issues). Where do you excel? Where do you have room to grow?


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