In Part One of “Distress Tolerance for the Holidays” blog, details were shared on how each individual can map out their own autonomic nervous system, and the value of doing so. In assuming that you’ve read part one and have done the exercise, you’re likely wondering “Now, what? How do I deal with real time distress and recover from the holidays?” Remember in the last blog where I said that the holidays can bring about complex emotions and sensations for any and every human being out there.

Similarly, Therapists are not immune to “stuff hitting the fan” either. We’re human, too. Very recently, I learned of something that occurred in the building where I’m renting office space from, which would limit my access to the office for the week. Of course, it went contrary to what my work plans were, but we live and adjust. So here’s are 10 steps that this fellow human and Therapist has utilized, as I hope it can be of support to you as well. 

  1. Take time to briefly reflect on where you were on the ladder of your autonomic nervous system before awareness of the event that happened (i.e. the ventral vagal state of connection and grounding; the sympathetic state of felt tension between fight or flight; or the dorsal vagal state of closing in on one’s self). Notice what specifically about the event activated a shift in state. A check in with your nervous system simply means gazing intently at your body as if you’re scanning it to see what’s there. You might even extend a tender touch to parts of your body that stand out to you in the moment, in need of care.  You can even ask yourself in the midst of tender care, “Where am I now? What else do I need?”
  2. Then, on to observation of the story. Ask yourself as if you’re in the role of a researcher, “What’s the story that wants to follow the current state that my nervous system is in? How much of this story has to do with attempts to fill in the gaps of the unknown?” Take notice without judgment.
  3. Find a neutral place in your body (sometimes, people identify this place in their abdomen, or left chest wall)- it’s a place in your body where there’s gentleness or calm, and even content. Perhaps, you find a quiet observer there, or restful joy. Athletes sometimes find this place in their creases of their fingers or feet.
  4. Then genuinely ask yourself, “what’s truly out of my control right now?” In this case, when thinking of the building scenario, I responded, “whatever the outcome might be of my office floor and having to re-schedule sessions online this week”. Now, think of yours. 
  5. Then notice your automatic responses for this question, “If I dared to accept the things that are out of my control in this event, what are the gains?” What was obvious for me was, more loving time at home, ability to confidentially work from my home office with video sessions, and gratitude for great clients who are capable of not only understanding, but also adjusting.” Now, how about you? What are some gains that you can think of?
  6. Affirm that there’s something your body has known how to do for as long as you’ve lived (it caring for you through inhales and exhales). So drawing your attention to your breaths and finding a rhythm with inhales and exhales that feels nurturing to your body and nervous system in its present state. 
  7. Reflect on a former experience you’ve had where it felt like a [insert your own word to describe it] before, and looking back on it now, you see that it actually turned out alright. Another act of vulnerability from your fellow human (also Therapist by career)… for me, it was joining the arena of sole entrepreneurship in April of 2019, and several months after, undergoing a needed surgery and recovery. Looking back, I think I kicked butt with some help along the way.  Your turn, tune-in to your own reflection of an experience, knowing that’s enough in it’s own right. 
  8. Identify some things that would help support you in climbing back up the ladder to ventral vagal. Hint, hint- What are the needs that if met would help you regain a felt sense of connection, grounding, or reminder of the Bigger picture? Move past “I don’t know” and curiously notice else what surfaces.  Good, now go for it.  For me, it was having some tea, sending off some email updates, quiet reflection, a light movie, and imagining the voice of a  loved one who has been the resounding echo of wisdom in my life for as long as I can remember. 
  9. Remember that it’s a choice to actively draw a line of how far you’ll  allow distress to take you, and where you want radical acceptance to meet you for a gentle leap. Yet, you have to track your nervous system to know what has happened and how its impacted a response. Then in the gentle leap of acceptance, you find neutrality. You can sit in neutrality without your suppressing needs and without clinging to any surfacing story that dares to fill in the gaps of unknown with endless chatter.
  10. I’m wishing you a zestful 2020, may the New Year and decade be full of experiences that dare you to move towards your most authentic self in this world and in relationship with others. 



Carmelle Ellison, LCSW

I help high-achieving adults, especially in the BIPOC community live authentically wholesome lives via telehealth therapy throughout California.


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