How to Tolerate Emotional Distress

TIPPS tips to distress tolerance emotion heightens calm down

TIPP skills are best used when we need to be brought back down to a calm state. Emotional distress can come from feelings of anxiety, anger, or feeling hurt. These different skills how to tolerate emotional distress can be used at different levels of it. When we feel ourselves creeping up the distress scale, we can use the less intense skills that take less time – like paced breathing. When we’re feeling close to our breaking point, well past the point of logic, we’ll need to turn to more intense skills like intense exercise. (Remember the emotion thermometers, like the anger thermometer? The same idea applies to a distress thermometer.)

T – Temperature 

When you get worked up about something, your body physically becomes hotter. We can often feel this. However, we often overlook the connection between physical sensations and our emotions. To counter this heating up, hold an ice cube, take a cold shower, blast the AC on your face. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it lasts for at least 30 seconds to 1 minute. If you’re 10/10 extremely heightened and emotional, dunk your head in ice water (if doing so is possible/realistic). This activates our mammalian diving response, signalling a chemical change in our body. This change will bring us back to a more relaxed state. Whether you need the intense ice water head dunk or the less intense holding of an ice cube, cooling down your body physically can help cool you down emotionally. 

I – Intense Exercise

Exercise releases endorphins. Endorphins reduce our perception of pain as well as trigger positive feelings (this usually happens after 20-30 minutes). This means exercise helps combat sadness, anger, and anxiety while increasing feelings of happiness. What we’re talking about with this skill, however, is intense exercise and its immediate benefits. This isn’t a light jog around the block – this is a sprint down the street, a hard session with a punching bag, or doing jumping jacks. Your intensity of emotion and fitness level will play into what you decide to do for this TIPP skill. When you increase your oxygen flow, it decreases your stress levels. Exercising intensely can help you feel like you’re expelling the bad energy and negative thoughts. It can help you feel like you’ve accomplished something with your intense emotion, instead of letting the emotion control you. It’s hard to stay “out of control” upset when you’re exhausted. Try to wear yourself out. 

calm down with exercise boxing punching sprinting

P – Paced Breathing

Relaxing and focusing on being mindful and present increases the release of dopamine, serotonin, melatonin, and endorphins. (You can check out our top apps for meditation here.) Paced breathing is a form of meditation that helps take you from a heightened state to a more relaxed state. This TIPP skill is best used when you’re lower on your scaling of emotion, from around a 4 to a 7. There are different types of paced breathing. One form is box breathing. Picture your breaths as a box. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7, breathe out for 8, and hold for 7. Repeat. Try to focus on your breathing until you notice you start to calm down. This one is especially useful after a frustrating email as you can use your computer screen as a guide! Breathe in as you trace the top of your monitor, hold as you trace the side, breathe out as you trace the bottom, and hole as you trace the other side. Explore different breathing techniques by checking out a breathing app or just heading over to Google for some ideas. 

P – Paired Muscle Relaxation

This skill is my personal favorite. I hold a lot of my negative emotions in my shoulders and jaw and it can be hours before I notice. (This also indicates to me I need to be making more time for mindfulness.) Paired muscle relaxation is when you progressively tighten and then relax muscles/muscle groups. Purposefully tightening an already tense muscle allows you to get to the next step of relaxing that muscle. Often only afterward do we realize how tense we were. If you can, I like to start from my forehead and work all the way down to my toes. However, this might not always feel possible. Scrunching your face in a work meeting may not be ideal.  So, in those moments pick a muscle group that feels doable – like working from your glutes down to your toes or shoulders down your arms to your fists. Relaxed muscles require less oxygen, so this will lead to your breathing and heart rate slowing down. Here is a guided video I like to use. 

pmr progressive muscle relaxation calm down destress distress

Different levels of emotional distress call for different techniques to bring yourself back down. The more heightened you are, the more intense your skill will need to be to work. When you’re close to your highest point, paced breathing won’t help, but intense exercise will. When you’re at a lower level of distress, paced breathing can do wonders and take significantly less time. The goal is to get used to paying attention to your body cues that you’re starting to get heightened and catch them as soon as possible. This will help stop you from getting to a high level of distress that may lead to you avoiding loved ones, shutting down, acting out, or hurting yourself or others.


Article by Sarah O’Leary, AMFT#123449 (supervised by Jennine Estes, LMFT#47653)

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Sarah O'Leary

I am captivated most by the importance of relationships and emotions and how they impact our everyday lives. Both relationships and our emotions help shape who we are as a person. "Relationship" doesn't just mean partner, but rather connections of all kinds. This means everything from strangers, to friends, to partners, and most importantly, the relationship you have with yourself. Emotions are what underlies our thoughts and behaviors, they are the key to understanding ourselves.