If you know anything about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (aka DBT) or have heard about it in passing, you’ve probably noticed a lot of talk about skills. And you might be wondering- what exactly are skills?
Skills are tools and strategies to help you get closer to your ultimate goals. Distress tolerance skills specifically are probably one of the most well-known types of skills. They are exactly what they sound like they are- skills for tolerating distress. It includes doing things like distraction activities and self-soothing actions. Distress tolerance skills also look like using imagery, making meaning, doing a pro and con list, or trying paced breathing.
However, even though distress tolerance skills do exactly what their name sounds like they do, there’s a lot of misconceptions about what to expect when you’re using distress tolerance skills.
Misconception #1: Distress tolerance skills help me feel better.
You might intuitively think this would be the case- If the skills are helping me tolerate distressing moments, certainly that means I’ll feel better right? Actually no. Distress tolerance skills are designed with one specific goal in mind- to help you through a difficult moment or craving without making it worse. And while sometimes, we might feel better in the process of using a distress tolerance skill, like watching a movie or taking a walk, it’s not always the case. If you are getting through a difficult moment without turning to destructive or unhelpful behaviors, then the distress tolerance skill is doing its job.
Misconception #2: Once I use one distress tolerance skill, I won’t need to use any more.
We often hear clients tell us: Well I took a shower, using my distress tolerance skill, and now I still want to go binge- It’s not working! Again, not exactly the case. Taking that shower got you through 15 minutes without turning to food (success!) If the cravings are still strong, it’s time to try another distress tolerance skill. In fact, in especially difficult moments, we want many skills at our disposal to use. Don’t stop after just trying one!
Here’s something that’s certainly not a misconception- When it comes to sticking to your food plan and goals, skills are tremendously important for tolerating emotions without turning to food and riding out urges to eat off plan, such as between meals or late at night. In difficult moments, you don’t need to rely on willpower alone- skills are here to help!