By: Lani Tran
In 2011, famous female idol Kelly Clarkson sang the iconic line, “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger”, and, nearly a decade later, many people are still listening to the nostalgic song. Her famous line empowers people all over the world and for good reason—welcome to the world of distress tolerance, a psychological coping mechanism which forms around a person’s ability to cope with emotional distress through dialectical behavioral therapy or DBT, a series of steps which allow you to become stronger and, maybe, a little bit smarter.
Having a low distress tolerance often means that a person will collapse under pressure easily. Meanwhile, having a high distress tolerance means that a person can manage their emotions better and, thus, get through a variety of stressful situations more easily. You might have a completely different tolerance level from somebody else, and that’s completely fine! The key takeaway is that you can learn to build your distress tolerance, so you’re able to handle events better without harming your mental health. Nobody is born with high-distress tolerance, but you can start working on yourself—which means that you have to allow yourself to grow. And, whether you’re growing from a baby to a child, child to teen, teen to adult, and so on, the most important thing is to take that growth step by step, and DBT helps you do that.
But how? It uses four steps, to help sensitive people learn healthy coping skills that help them navigate through stressful moments in their life. The first step of DBT is to stay in control of the situation. You’re not alone if you’ve ever acted before you thought something through, because acting on impulse is something all of us do. However, this is the central reason why so many people come to regret decisions later. While acting on impulse may seem relatively ideal in the heat of the moment, those actions can come with vicious consequences, which is the last thing you want! Therefore, when life throws you a curveball, stop, think, and then do.
Your next move should be to take a deep breath and remove yourself from the situation—just take a few steps back. It’s important to realize that we do things for a reason, so if you originally had the impulse to react to a situation, the situation must’ve triggered something within you. That’s why, to stop yourself from any rash actions, you should put some physical distance between you and the situation; it gives yourself time to clear your head before deciding on a course of action.
After that, the next step entails observing the environment. By putting physical distance between you and the situation, you tend to look at it from a different point of view. This is the ideal time to observe your surroundings, which doesn't just include the world around you—it also means to understand how you're feeling. how you’re feeling and how the world around you looks like. Once you start doing that, you’ll start noticing things; for example, you might discover that the situation is actually not that big of a deal, and you would have never been able to reach that conclusion if you hadn’t taken a step back and shifted your perspective.
Last but not least, you need to think about your goals and actions. From the first three steps, you should’ve learned more about your environment and yourself, in regards to the situation, and now you can choose to react to the situation accordingly armed with these new insights. Or, you could even shrug off a situation if you realized that it wasn’t worth the hassle. Either way, by using the four skills of DBT, you can learn to react to a situation more calmly, intelligently, and effectively.
In the end, when living in a world that’s constantly changing, the only things we have true power over are our reactions, which makes adapting to stressful situations a necessary skill to learn and remember. Skyland Trail, an award-winning nonprofit mental health treatment organization based in Atlanta, has condensed these four parts to DBTinto the acronym, “STOP,” to make them easier to memorize and practice:
S - Stop! Stay in control of the situation. Remain stable in both body and mind.
T - Take a step back! Take a moment to take a deep breath and refrain from acting on impulse.
O - Observe! Assess the situation and recognize your surroundings, both inside and out.
Acknowledge how you feel and how other people are reacting.
P - Proceed mindfully! Outweigh the pros and cons of different reactions to the situation. Which course of action would be the most healthy to take?
Whenever a stressful situation lingers onto your path, remember these four DBT steps and that self-evaluation is important in overcoming any obstacle. In time, the practices of DBT will lead to a higher distress tolerance and, eventually, a healthier you!
And so, returning the words of Kelly Clarkson, “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger”. When a situation tries knocking you down, remember to stop, take a step back, observe, and proceed mindfully. While a stressful situation won’t kill you, recovering from it without any regrets will make you stronger—and that’s something you can count on!
“Survive a Crisis Situation with DBT Distress Tolerance Skills.” Skyland Trail, 8 Nov. 2019,
Accessed 18 August 2020.
Tull, Matthew. “How to Use Your Innate Distress Tolerance to Manage Intense Emotions.” Verywell Mind, 17 July 2020, https://www.verywellmind.com/distress-tolerance-2797294#:~:text=Distress%20tolerance%20is%20a%20person's,incident%20without%20making%20it%20worse.
Accessed 18 August 2020.
Stupinski, Clare. “STOP Skill - Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Tools.” Home Base Program, 29 Apr. 2020, https://www.homebase.org/news/stop-skill-dialectical-behavior-therapy-dbt-tools/.
Accessed 31 August 2020.