The previous module focused on developing ways of accepting emotional distress. This module takes a
very different focus of learning how to improve your distress when you experience it. To improve distress
we focus more on your behaviours, looking at what to do and what not to do when you experience
emotional distress. Depending on the type of escape methods you typically use (i.e., avoidance, numbing &
withdrawing, or harmful releases), the strategies we will suggest for improving your distress will vary
slightly. This module will focus on helping you discover a variety of things you can try to improve your
distress, so you can experiment and find out what works for you.
Balancing Acceptance & Improvement
Accepting and improving distress are quite different approaches, and maintaining a balance
between acceptance and improvement is the key to building distress tolerance. It is unhelpful
to be at either extreme (i.e., only accepting how you feel or only trying to improve how you
feel). To tolerate distress you really need to learn how to do both. Our aim is to help you
learn how to accept your negative emotions, and with that in mind, then work on improving your
emotional experience. Imagine if you only tried to improve your distress without being able to accept it
first, if this were the case then your efforts to find something to improve your negative feelings would be
pretty frantic and desperate. If instead you could accept your distress, then your efforts to improve the
distress would more likely be calm, considered and calculated.
We have purposely put Accepting Distress before Improving Distress in this series of Modules, as we don’t
want “improving” to become just another strategy for avoiding your emotions. In summary, you need to
feel the emotion first, accept it, ride through it, and then take action to improve it.
However having said that, if as you work through these modules the distress you experience is extremely
intense and unbearable emotional pain, then you may not be able to apply the acceptance strategies
outlined in the previous module just yet. If this is the case, then it is ok to move straight to this module
and focus on improving your distress (particularly the Distress Improvement Activities on page 5). This is
particularly relevant for people who engage in self-harm or drug and alcohol use to manage their distress. In
these situations, temporary distractions may be necessary to help you get through the intense distress you
might be experiencing, and avoid engaging in behaviours that are damaging to you.
As we have seen, being distress intolerant can manifest is very different sorts of behaviours or escape
methods. Some people avoid certain situations that make them distressed, engage in reassurance seeking
or checking to alleviate their distress, or use distraction and suppression to stop their distress. Other
people numb and withdraw via engaging in alcohol
or drug use, binge eating or using sleep to escape
their emotions. And other people may engage in
harmful releases, hurting themselves in some
physical way as a means of dealing with their
distress. Although these behaviours are very
different, and hence the strategies for improving
distress can vary too, the common guiding principle
for improving distress is to do the opposite of your
escape urge, and find specific activities that improve
your emotional state.
: As mentioned in Module 1, whilst these modules may be helpful to people who use drugs, alcohol or self-harm as a
means of tolerating emotional distress, it is important to recognise that these are very serious problems in their own right that
can cause a person significant harm. We strongly advise seeking help from a GP or mental health professional to address these
concerns, rather than relying solely on these Modules to overcome the problem.
• Psychotherapy • Research • Training
Module 3: Improving Distress