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HAERT Mental Wellness

College Drop off & Distress Tolerance

Barbara Navarro
Barbara NavarroPublished on August 19, 2022

I just sent my oldest off to college 2000 miles away. It was a rough flight back after an exhausting 3 days of traveling, shopping, organizing, orienting and meeting new people. On the flight back, I was reading all the heartfelt posts in the university parent group. I realized it was a good time for a primer on Distress Tolerance 101.

We need to experience our emotions without letting them take over.

Everyone experiences their emotions differently.

Some people use distraction (work, other people, hobbies) to allow time to pass and the emotions to soften. This is a great strategy that allows us to get on with our lives and not be overwhelmed by emotional suffering. Except for when we distract to the point of avoiding any experience of pain and not developing our emotion management skills.

Other people need to allow their emotions to fully wash over them before releasing them and moving on. This process of catharsis is actually an important part of our emotional experience and processing of where we are. When we instead bottle up our emotions, we can experience unhelpful emotional outbursts and overreactions to little things that set us off.

Distraction and Catharsis are both important.

The key is learning the skills to manage the emotions so they don’t overwhelm us. The ability to manage, and not avoid, our emotions means we can experience them without fear of not being able to stop feeling distress. However, if we use distraction all the time, it becomes an unhealthy avoidance of our emotions.

When we have a physical injury, we are generally able to accept the pain as the reality of the situation. We rub a stubbed toe, massage our temples and breathe our way through a muscle cramp. An emotional injury is similar. We can use our Distress Tolerance skills to accept the initial pain coming from the emotion. However, frequently what we do is dwell on how we feel and end up causing ourselves to suffer more. It’s all about the balance.

Tips for managing distressing emotions.

Whenever we are feeling upset - especially when we cannot do much to change our situation - Radical Acceptance of what is happening is an important part of reducing our suffering. 

We can’t NOT send our young adults away (near or far), nor would we want to. AND it still hurts to let them go after having cared for them for 18+ years. Our role in their lives is changing. So we need to focus our energy on accepting this stage in life and changing how we work with them. 

Here are 4 effective skills that, when used in balance, can help us DISTRACT from the inevitable pain, experience our emotions while lessen the suffering and cope with the stress of change.


Strong physical sensations are great for getting us out of our heads (and imaginations!) and grounding ourselves in the reality of our bodies, which are generally safe and cared for. We can bawl our eyes out in the pleasure of a scented hot shower/bath while imagining it’s like a big supportive hug. Or sweat it out and burn up the stress and worry hormones with a hard workout or 1on1 match. Or turn up the tunes, binaural beats, something soothing. Even Elton's Sad Songs, because temporarily embracing the suck is part of getting over it.

2. IMPROVE the moment

It stands for Imagery, Meaning, Prayer, Relaxation, One, Vacation, Encouragement. These Distress Tolerance skills help us step back from the thing that’s causing pain.

Some examples include:

- Imagining we’re standing in that stunning screen saver image

- Looking for purpose or meaning in the everyday things we have to do

- Asking for strength from a higher power

- Engaging in pleasurable activities

- Being mindful to get out of our heads and into the present moment

- Taking a short walk/dance/music break from reality and

- Patting ourselves on the back for effort.

You can learn more about IMPROVE here:


It stands for Activities, Contributing, Comparisons, Emotions, Pushing away, Thoughts, Sensations. These Distress Tolerance skills help us distract from our pain with other sensations, thoughts and emotions.

Hobbies, work, volunteering or helping others, intentionally replacing painful emotions with comedy, connecting with other people and even knocking off that Honey (To) Do list can help us refocus our attention on something other than our emotions.

When you notice yourself drifting back to the pain or just not enjoying the activity as much as normal, Don’t Judge! Remind yourself that it’ll take some time for the pain to wear off and give yourself credit for using skills to manage your emotions.

You can learn more about ACCEPTS here: 


Knowing that other people are having the same or similar feelings helps us acknowledge that we’re going through something normal and we are not broken in any fundamental way. That’s why this group is so important! The process of connecting, leaning on and supporting others helps us release oxytocin, a key hormone that can support wellbeing by making us feel calmer, increasing our trust in others, and reducing our stress. We can also get this through massage, enjoying our pets, and of course hugs.

Everyone's doing the best they can AND we can all learn to do better.

Feel like you should know or do this already?

It’s not rocket science. But in our distress we often forget what helps. So this can be a reminder of what you can do intentionally to be more effective. Look for baby steps that drop the bar low enough that you stop resisting.

It's not just for us as parents, but also for our young adults.

Change seems hard and we can all learn skills to make it easier. If we take away a challenge for our young adults because it's painful for us to watch or for them to experience - even out of love - we also take away the impetus to learn skills and evolve. We remove the grain of sand that can turn into a pearl of wisdom. 

If your student is struggling with fitting in, thinking that everyone else has new friends except them or just not wanting to do it full throttle en masse with the rest of the orientation crowd, Distress Tolerance skills help give them (us) the space needed to respond effectively and reach our individual goals.

It's about Distress TOLERANCE

Does all this mean I'm not bawling my eyes out?

Not at all! But I'm doing it while sipping a hot cup of jasmine tea and watching funny K Dramas with my youngest.

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