If a fire breaks out in the building, you must find a fire extinguisher. When you see someone collapsing in the street, you’re legally obliged to help them and call 911 if needed. In case of a plane crash, you need to prioritize your safety, and only afterward can you help others put on their oxygen masks. 

Life and society coach us in essential survival skills from an early age. We’re taught how to do CPR, bandage a wound, or perform other procedures designed to protect our physical health. 

But how can you cope with a sudden wave of sadness while mourning the loss of a loved one? How do you prevent drowning in shame after a painful breakup? What to do when caught up in a whirlpool of anxiety right before an important job interview?

It’s common to feel left in the dark when it comes to supporting our mental and emotional well-being in such difficult moments. As a consequence, people often resort to numbing or running away from their emotional pain with substances, addictions, or dysfunctional behaviors. Luckily,  there are many therapeutic approaches, including DBT therapy, emphasizing the importance of mastering practical skills to navigate crises and regulate our emotions efficiently. In this article, we’ll walk you through the art of minimizing your discomfort and building the skill of navigating through tough times.

Introducing Distress Tolerance Skill: ACCEPTS

We, humans, are emotional creatures. And our feelings do not have an on-and-off switch, which is not always so convenient. I bet you can remember instances when an intense emotion appeared at the worst time possible, and it seemed like there was nothing you could do to manage it properly.

We’ve all been there, whether it’s spine-chilling anxiety as you start a big presentation at work, a sense of sadness bringing tears to your eyes in public, or feeling increasingly angry at your partner after an exhausting day at work.

To manage this situation on the spot and prevent falling into despair, you can learn a practical skill called ACCEPTS, commonly used in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

It can help you:

  • ride the wave of discomfort and pain instead of drowning in it,
  • reduce the intensity of a particular feeling,
  • develop a better sense of self-awareness,
  • survive a crisis by regulating your emotions,
  • build your confidence and self-esteem,
  • feel empowered to take action in the face of adversity.

ACCEPTS distress tolerance

Tolerating Distress with ACCEPTS

Sometimes, we don’t have the luxury of addressing the root cause of a specific emotion – we simply need to cope with it as soon as possible. That’s where ACCEPTS steps in, with each letter standing for a practical solution designed to shift your focus away from the distressing emotion, moving you closer toward a sense of inner balance:

Description Examples
A: Activities Become fully engaged in your task at hand.
  • Read an interesting book.
  • Watch a captivating movie.
  • Clean your kitchen.
  • Go for a run/walk in a park.
C: Contributing Focus on helping others instead of getting stuck in your own issues.
  • Start volunteering.
  • Select clothing to donate.
  • Send a kind message to your loved one/close friend.
C: Comparisons Put your problems in perspective.
  • Educate yourself on global events linked to natural disasters/armed conflict.
  • Reflect on times when you were less fortunate. 
E: Emotions Elicit a different emotional state.
  • Identify and label your emotions, then create a competing feeling.
  • Watch a funny/scary movie.
  • Listen to soothing/energizing music.
P: Pushing away Leave the current situation mentally and distance yourself from it for a while.
  • Write your emotion on a piece of paper, then crumple it up and throw it away
  • Say out loud: “I refuse to feel xxx.”
  • Imagine building a wall between you and the feeling at hand.
T: Thoughts Keep strong emotions at bay by preoccupying your brain.
  • Recite your mantra / positive affirmations.
  • Close your eyes and list all the sounds you can hear.
  • Count your breaths for a while.
S: Sensations Stimulate yourself with potent sensations.
  • Take a warm/cold shower.
  • Hold an ice cube in your mouth/hand.
  • Listen to stimulating music.

ACCEPTS in Practice

Imagine you’ve just had a heated argument with your partner. You’re angry with them and feel hurt and mistreated. Before the conflict goes out of hand (a common relationship mistake), you want to regulate your emotions and cool down. Following the ACCEPTS framework, here’s how you achieve your goal:

  • You put on your favorite soothing music (Emotions) and go for a walk in a nearby park (Activities). 
  • You notice yourself ruminating on the conversation you just had with your partner, their words still loud in your mind. Rather than giving into this state, you imagine putting your anger in a box, locking it away, and building a wall between you and the box (Pushing away).
  • You notice how this current argument is not as bad as the conflicts you used to go through with your ex-partner. You remember how you handled that challenging time with grace. (Comparison)
  • As you start feeling a little bit better, you recite your mantra: “I am capable. I am strong. I can deal with this in a healthy way.” (Thoughts). 
  • You sit on a bench in the park and take a moment to breathe in and out deeply, creating a pleasant sensation that helps you relax and become less tense (Sensations).
  • Before returning home, you pop by a grocery store to surprise your partner with their favorite little treat. If you don’t feel like gifting it to them now, you can always wait for the right moment later on. (Contributing).

You return home in a totally different state than when you left. ACCEPTS, while not a revolutionary skill, can bring powerful effects. When followed regularly, it can help you build greater psychological resilience and even introduce a long-lasting positive change in your life.

It’s important to note here that ACCEPTS, like many other techniques, helps to manage the symptoms – difficult emotional states – not the root of the issue. To truly address that underlying cause, it’s a fantastic idea to start psychotherapy and discuss your experience with a professional. There’s no shame in asking for help. Quite the opposite – it’s a beautiful act of courage. 

If you don’t want to run away from your problems and wish to face them with the assistance of a psychologist – start by contacting us here