DBT For Parents: IMPROVE the Moment for Distress Tolerance 

I have already talked a bit in this space about distress tolerance. One of the commonalities between most people living with mental illness is that we have BIG emotions. Whether it is a chemical imbalance or a result of trauma, we react to things a little more extremely than that situation warrants. While this sensitivity has its upsides (sometimes we relate better to our kids’ extreme emotions), more often it just causes undue suffering. A lot of time, that suffering is self inflicted. We know our reactions are extreme! It is just difficult, in the moment, to rein those emotions in.

DBT Therapy focuses a lot on distress tolerance. It is one of the first modules you learn. Most people enter therapy in extreme distress, so lowering that immediate distress is the only way to get through to the bigger reasons for those extreme emotions.

I’ve mentioned before, DBT uses a lot of acronyms. Here’s another one for distress tolerance: IMPROVE the moment. IMPROVE stands for:

I – Imagery

M – Meaning

P – Prayer

R – Relaxation

O – One thing at a time

V – Vacation

E – Encouragement

These skills are kind of “perspective shifting” skills. They help you focus on the positive. They focus your mind on either the bigger picture or the immediate. Looking for positive imagery, meaning, and encouragement all prompt turning away from negative thoughts to positive ones. Relaxation and vacation skills promote self care, reminding yourself that you are worthy of a break. And taking things one thing at a time reminds us not to catastrophize a problem, to take each problem as it comes so we don’t get stuck in an absolutist mentality.

IMPROVE skills, it’s important to note, are best used when the situation is something we cannot change. There are times and situations to look at things critically, to make sure we are not being taken advantage of, to make sure we are not being martyr moms. But more often than not, the time to look at those patterns is not when we are in immediate distress.

As a parent, this is doubly true. Especially with little children, they are not misbehaving vindictively or with the intention to make us question ourselves. Having an outburst because they *always* throw food or *never* go to sleep without a fight doesn’t help anyone. We’re better off tackling the problem with a cool head and addressing if it’s a larger problem later.