Mindful Weekend: Coping Effectively with Distress

This weekend, I invite you to meet distress in a different way. We all know this feeling of distress- good old distress makes himself known in a variety of different ways, whether it be body sensations, thoughts, or emotions. It can be assured that in moments of unease or discomfort or anxiety, distress will very often be along for the ride.

To boil down its definition, distress means “suffering.” We know that pain is inevitable- we will lose loved ones, we will be disappointed, we will encounter difficulties (big and small) around every bend in life. Yet, in spite of this inevitability, suffering itself is not a given. Pain is the natural reaction of the body and the mind to a difficulty. By contrast, suffering involves our reaction to the pain: the story we tell ourselves about how long the pain will last and what it means, our assessment of our resources to deal with the pain, what we think past pain of the same degree could mean for dealing with this current pain, and on and on.

If we could peel away that layer of suffering, we could deal more directly with the pain and respond to it more effectively. But while we are defining vague psychological constructs, what does “effective” really mean?  One definition, or equation if you will, that I think is very illustrative is borrowed from Dialectical Behavior Therapy:

current reality + rules of the universe + values/goals = effectiveness  

All the variables in the above equation are important to factor in when deciding how to respond in a distressing moment. Yes, there are things that you cannot change about the situation and about how the universe works (for example, life is not fair). Even with all those realities in mind, you can bring your values front and center, ultimately choosing to move in a value-driven direction.

Here is an example. Today I found myself in the midst of a little “road rage,” wherein I thought I had the right of way and the other person thought they had the right of way. The other driver rolled his eyes, gesticulating, lowered his window and tried to convince me that he was right. I tried to prove my case (in French- yikes!) but I could see it was going nowhere and drove away. A part of me wanted to stay and try to convince the other driver that I was right. But, the value-driven part of me said, “what do you have to prove? There are more important things to do today than stay to fight a meaningless battle.” The inner core of my distress in that moment was striking fear that I was wrong, that I made a mistake. After getting home and calming down, it was clearer to me that who was right was less important than the fact that no one got hurt and I have more emotional energy for the rest of the day.

Even when distress threatens to overwhelm you, keep moving in the direction of your values
Even when distress bogs you down, you can keep moving in the direction of your values

Distress can feel like a formidable foe. He takes many shapes and forms and often it can feel like he engulfs rational thought.  But this weekend, I hope you can try to meet him in a new way. Get to know him and he will lose his power. I believe it will then be easier for you to connect to your values and to move back in the direction of the things that matter most to you in your life.

So, when you encounter a distressing moment this weekend, ask yourself: What does distress feel like? Can you notice the thoughts and body sensations that correspond with it? How are you pulled to manage distress? Is it effective?  Does it serve you and your values in the long-run? If not, is there something else you can try?

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