Distress tolerance is a very useful concept to think about when recovering from addiction. Simply put, distress tolerance refers to your ability to withstand (tolerate) emotional pain or distress. When you start using drugs or alcohol, they quickly lower your level of distress tolerance. Instead of being able to withstand the tough feelings, you begin to turn immediately to substances.

In recovery, whether inpatient or outpatient, relapse can be prevented by building your distress tolerance skills. The first goal is going to be recognizing your triggers and the emotions that you usually manage with substances.

But once you’ve got a good idea of your triggers, you still have to fill your toolbox with skills to replace the drugs and alcohol.

We generally refer to 3 simple categories of distress tolerance skills: distraction, self-soothing, and improving the moment.


Distraction is one of the most popular distress tolerance techniques of the general population. When people are feeling overwhelmed by an emotion, they turn to TV, games, books, and other distractions, whether or not they intend it. In fact, so common is this behavior that it gets a bad name – ultimately, if you always distract yourself from your feelings will get you into trouble.

However, as a recovering addict, distraction can be a very effective and useful tool. It can be used instead of drinking or doing drugs, and there’s nothing too complicated about it. Of course, if you never manage your feelings any other way, you’ll find yourself struggling eventually. Use it when necessary, but try not to rely on it too much.


Self-soothing strategies depend on a slightly different approach. Instead of distracting yourself through external sources, you use your senses to soothe yourself without downplaying the emotion. For example, if you’re feeling particularly anxious, you can listen to music, focusing on the sounds, using them to ground yourself in the present.

The beauty of self-soothing is that it gives you an opportunity to change your relationship to your emotions. You’re not pushing the difficult feeling away. Rather, you’re teaching yourself that you can be okay even when experiencing the emotion. You can, in the example above, focus on soothing music while letting your anxiety simply “be”.

Improving the Moment

Sometimes, when you’re in a state of crisis, neither distraction nor self-soothing will help. The fear and dread associated with the emotions you’re feeling is just too strong. In these cases, improving the moment can help.

Improving the moment refers to a technique through which you reframe what is going on. You can do this by visualizing the situation and changing certain aspects in your mind. You can find a way to glean meaning from what is going on. You can pray, if spirituality appeals to you. You can practice meditation if you have the skills to relax yourself one step at a time.


All of these techniques require practice and a certain amount of preparation. A good start is to get a good idea of what distractions are available, which methods work for self-soothing, and ideas as to how to improve the moment.

Here are some resources to get you started: