May 10 – Skills For When You Are Distressed

Written by Karyn Hall

May 10, 2020

Crisis survival skills are skills for tolerating and surviving a crisis situation. You use them when a crisis cannot be avoided. The basic idea is to get through crisis situations without adding to the problems in your life, even though your emotions are clouding your ability to make wise choices and decisions. You can’t see clearly when you are emotionally aroused, yet you are likely to feel an urgency to act. When you act out of a sense of urgency or panic, you are likely to make unwise decisions.


There are six groups of crisis survival skills. Each group is a set of strategies for coping with overwhelming emotions.

  1. STOP skill—see below
  2. Pros and cons
  3. TIP Skills—change your temperature using ice or cold cloths, do intense exercise, or practice paced breathing
  4. Distracting
  5. Self-soothing
  6. Improving the moment

The skills take practice to learn. The more you practice the more effective the skills will be. Even when you use the skills, the results may not be that you’ll feel better for long. The skills are meant to be temporary, to get you through a crisis without doing something to make it worse.

Overusing these Distress Tolerance or “crisis” skills is not helpful. They are meant to be used short-term, for crisis situations. If you cope and never problem-solve, that may be a way of avoiding emotions and is not healthy in the long run.

When to Use Distress Tolerance Skills:

  1. You’re having intense pain that cannot be helped quickly.
  2. You want to act in emotion mind and that would make things worse.
  3. Your emotional distress threatens to become overwhelming.
  4. You are feeling overwhelmed but needing to meet demands
  5. You have extreme arousal and problems that can’t be solved immediately

How Do You Know if Crisis Survival Skills Are Working

  1. When time passes and you haven’t done anything to make things worse. This is true even if you don’t feel better.
  2. When you start feeling more able to tolerate the problem while using other skills. Rate your distress tolerance from 0 (“I can’t tolerate it at all”) to 10 (“Although this is painful, I can definitely tolerate it.”)

What is the STOP skill

The STOP skill stands for:

S: Stop! Don’t make decisions in the moment. Don’t make decisions when you are emotional. If the decision is the right one, you’ll still feel the same way when you are no longer emotional.

T: Take a step back. This means to get out of the emotional situation if possible. Take some time to think about it.

O: Observe. This means to observe the facts, observe the situation. See the big picture. What are all the pros and cons?

P: Proceed mindfully. Think through your actions. Wait until you are calm, with no sense of urgency. Think about the consequences for you and for those you love.

Live a skill-full life, Karyn Hall, Ph.D., May 10, 2020

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