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What to Do With Distress and Fear

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Distress and fear are common human emotions, and at times, everyone feels them, even the happiest person. Yet what do we do when these pesky emotions overtake us, when the weight of these intense negative feelings become too much to bear? Have you had those times when what’s looming in front of you is so overwhelming that you don’t know what to do?

Over three and a half years ago, I had memories of traumatic child abuse suddenly come back out of the blue. So I have been in that place of distress and fear many times in the last few years as I’m working on my trauma recovery. So, what do I do? I write! Writing has been very cathartic and healing for me, as it gets all the ‘junk’, the ‘garbage’ out of my head, as I wrote about here: Do I Have Permission to Tell My Mental Health Story?

I was in that spot last year before I published my very first poem on The Mighty. When I talked with Sarah Schuster, an editor at the Mighty, about it, she suggested I “send a poem to someone,” so I did! After we worked through it more, I got to the point where I was ok with publishing these poems and articles! Because I was still a little scared to put my own name ‘out there’, I also decided on using a pseudonym – The Tie Dye Poet. Now, I love that name, and I’m really embracing it.

I’m still writing, and this is the next step in my writing journey – publishing a book! I’m a bona fide Author! And this book is about aspects of my trauma recovery journey! Keep reading…

Three books with a colorful photo that reads: Finding the Little Girl Inside Me

What to Do With Distress and Fear…

So as I try to face the distress that frequently falls on me
I often wonder ‘what do I do now?’
It plummets me into complete emotional dysregulation
An overwhelm of emotions exploding into my face
Sending me into distress that’s so unbearable
That that’s when I can’t think at all!
All logical thinking is completely gone!
So – what do I do now?

So I know logical thinking is important at this point
However, my mind is not in that space when I’m this distressed!
This is where maybe I must be prepared ahead of time
I remember ‘Coping Ahead’ from DBT
That’s where before I’m in a distressing circumstance
I have thought through this, practiced it the best I can, and…
Hopefully it will fall into place when I’m in that distressing moment!
Whew!! That was hard!

I watched a video recently which addressed this very problem!
It asked three questions for me to consider
1. “Can I distinguish between something that is personal
versus something that affects me personally?”*
That one’s hard! I do tend to take things too personally!
Like, who’s talking about me? What are they saying?
Do they like me — or not? Do they want me to go away?
Is it hard for me to separate out those negative thoughts?
Yep — you bet it is!

2. “Distinguish between what’s controllable and what’s not”*
My whole life feels out of control!
I feel like absolutely nothing is in control!
I feel like a puppet on a string — twisting this way and that!
My childhood was controlled by my dad
Whatever he said was the rules we lived by
If we dared to question those rules — then punishment was to follow!
They were hard and unforgiving rules
So whether I can — or can’t — control something
Is beyond my thinking capacity right now!

3. “What makes distress tolerable is the importance of the goal
The ability to compartmentalize, the ability to separate elements of experience
in the same way that you’ll say to somebody, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’
I’m going to focus on the goal instead of the feelings
I’m highlighting the goal, shining a spotlight on the goal
and letting the feelings diminish and recede into the background.”*
Wow! This challenges the way I’ve been thinking for years!
It’s like – how do I put thoughts and feelings into little boxes?
That concept seems out of my scope of imagination!
But… then I think about it a little more…
There have been times when I’ve done just that!
‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’

So, when I’m in that emotional overwhelm, and I can ‘do it anyway’
Then that emotional overwhelm, that distress is allowed to fall to the side
What is my goal? My goal is healing
I must ‘do it anyway’, and push through the scary
Even when I can’t see how I will make it through
Even when the journey looks daunting
Even when I know that the next therapy session may dissociate me
And send my mind to a place that I really don’t want to go
I will ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’

Another goal I have is to get my book out to the world
I know deep down that it will help and support people on their journey
I know many people relate to what I write
They appreciate me sharing my story – no matter how frightening it is to me!
It has been cathartic for me, and has value and meaning for others too!
But it is very raw and vulnerable – a very personal story
That story is not just a fairy tale, but a story of what I faced
Both as a child – and as an adult – but it’s a story that I feel must be told
So, getting my book ‘out there’ is an important goal
So I will ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’
I find that thought just a little bit comforting

It’s like, I never thought of it like that – to look past the distress towards the goal
So I think I’m going to focus on that (we’ll see how successful I am)
Because so often I get stuck in this distress, I get stuck in this overwhelm
I feel like I’m just spiraling down, and I feel lost and don’t know how to get out of it
But then picking myself up, standing up and looking out to the goal
This helps me just a little bit, as what I need to get started
This book is so close, it’s on the cusp of being published
And I’m still scared… but I’m going to do it anyways

I’ve been saying to people, I’m ‘excited, scared and terrified’
And somebody at a meeting said recently, oh, well look at it this way
“Your ‘exscarified’!” Just combining all three words into one new word!
And it’s funny, but that feels ‘just right’
But this idea of focusing on the goal, and doing it anyway
At least helps me take that one step in that direction
So to start is a start, even if just a little bit
It makes a difference for me and I need to just focus on that goal
Today, tomorrow, next week, next month, whenever

* Video “Three Steps to Tolerating Distress, “ Michael Yapko, PhD,
NICABM, National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine

Three Steps to Tolerating Distress

1. (@.11 seconds) Can you distinguish between something that is personal versus something that affects you personally?

2. (@ 2:44) Distinguish between what’s controllable and what’s not. When people aren’t good at making that discrimination, they will attempt to control things they can’t. Or, vice versa – they don’t try and control things that they could.

3. (@ 3:38) What makes distress tolerable is the importance of the goal. What allows people to put up with distress is the value of the goal. The ability to compartmentalize, the ability to separate elements of experience, in the same way that you’ll say to somebody, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Well, the ability to compartmentalize means separating elements of experience from one another. So again, if I’m going to focus you on the goal instead of the feelings, I’m highlighting the goal, shining a spotlight on the goal, and letting the feelings diminish and recede into the background. That’s how compartmentalization takes place, and it’s a way of building tolerance for distress.

A Three-Step Approach to Help Clients Tolerate Distress

If you too are on a trauma healing journey, visit The Tie Dye poet’s website to see more of her work, and check out her book here.

Lead image by Tunatura

Originally published: January 7, 2022
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