Counseling Center

March 1, 2021

Using Acceptance to Reduce Distress

Posted by Caitlin Stanaway, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist, UWCC

Stress, distress, and strong emotions are all common and normal responses to the present circumstances. Symptoms of stress and distress can have a physical, mental, emotional, relational impact. When there are overlapping impacts on these domains, it is easy to be overwhelmed. Grief can also manifest in many different ways and be hard to endure. Stress, distress, and grief have become a normal part of daily life. This forces the need to cope, adapt, and learn.

Acceptance is the final stage of grief. Acceptance can be a teacher.  Acceptance can help us be reflective, objective, and cultivate wisdom, growth, and change. It can help us heal and move into different physical, mental, and emotional states when needed.

Acceptance doesn’t mean responding perfectly in all situations or never being stressed, or emotional. It means focusing on improving the moment and developing healthy patterns of responses and behaviors over time. Below are signs of stress and distress, ideas on using acceptance, and further resources.

Signs of physical distress:

  • Increased heart rate, chest tightness, shortness of breath, panic, fight, flight, freeze, fawn responses, increased adrenaline and cortisol
  • Too little or not enough sleep, too little or not enough food/nutrition, too little or not enough physical activity; changes or issues with alcohol/drug use
  • Being destructive toward self, others, property

Accepting stress as a normal and common physical experience can help us be more aware of stress response activation. Typical sensations are muscles tension, elevated heart rate, thoughts moving faster, feeling on edge, vigilance of the environment. Accepting these sensations (rather than emotionally reacting to them, worrying about them, trying to avoid them) increases tolerance for stress and distress.

Increased tolerance makes it easier to focus on identifying and meeting needs.  When the body is perceiving a threat, it needs safety and protection (i.e. prioritizing safety and wellbeing if in danger, or taking deep breathes and relaxing muscle groups to send the message that things are safe).

Keeping attention on the act of taking slow deep breaths is a physical coping strategy available at all times. Grounding strategies, such as focusing on sensory information, keep us physically present in the body but focused on sensations that are neutral or positive. This keeps focus and attention away from stress sensations. Enhancing physical calm lowers physical arousal. It reduces mental and emotional overwhelm as well.

Reflecting on how much sleep, water, food you have had recently can also help assess needs and priorities in the moment. Acceptance and responsiveness between mind and body enhances internal feelings of trust, security, and calm. It reinforces regulation between mind and body activities.

Signs of mental distress:

  • Diminished focus, attention, concentration, easily distracted, feeling disconnected from your body/stuck in your head, spiraling thoughts
  • over-thinking, thoughts pulled into the past or future, ruminating on stressors, fears, losses, negative memories or predictions
  • Judging, criticizing, questioning (i.e. Why aren’t I doing what I need to be doing? What’s wrong with me?)

Cognitive functioning is compromised by stress. Acceptance and understanding of cognitive limitations (on mental energy, motivation, productivity) helps to set realistic and humane goals. Imposing perfectionistic or hard-to-meet expectations is demoralizing. It often leads to further loss of motivation and interest, avoidance, as well as self-blame and criticism.

Accepting that thoughts are influenced by stress can help with not interpreting thoughts as the truth, not taking them personally, and not getting stuck in unhelpful hypothetical or worst-case scenario thinking. Grounding statements can be used in moments of mental stress: “I can’t know right now what’s going to happen.” “I don’t need to think more about this right now.” “What can be done about this today?” Also setting limits on stressful thinking: “I’m going to worry about this for half an hour, then do something else.”

Perspective taking (i.e. imagining your thoughts from someone else’s point of view) and exploring options (“There are unlimited options of other things I could think about right now”) are ways to combat mental stuckness or rigidity.

Providing acceptance and care through self-talk or inner dialogue (i.e. self-validation, reassurance, understanding), builds a healthy relationship with self. Imagining how you would respond to a loved one thinking the thoughts you are can help generate self-compassion and resiliency.

Signs of emotional distress:

  • Grief (anger, fear, sadness, loss)
  • Emotional overwhelm, increased sensitivity to emotions, lowered tolerance for emotions, feeling numb or shut down to emotions (negative and/or positive)
  • Difficulty recognizing when emotions are influencing thoughts and behaviors

Feeling overwhelmed, anxious, hopeless, helpless, afraid for others, grieving, etc. is normal and valid. Having thoughts and feelings related to death and dying are normal when surrounded by news of death and chaos.

It is normal to feel impacted when people around you are suffering. Taking on others’ suffering as your own does not change what that person has been through. It does not benefit you or them.  Accepting that you can feel and show empathy without taking on other’s distress can help with setting emotional limits.

Accepting emotions as a normal part of life can increase comfort, understanding, and clarity of emotions  (i.e. “This loss is so painful because that person/relationship meant so much to me; I feel fear about failing and will still try my best to succeed”).

Emotions may be more likely to move into conscious awareness when we are in a state of relaxed attention, like taking a shower, listening to music, exercising, or trying to fall asleep. We are more vulnerable to feeling stuck in an emotional state when tired, hungry, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs (i.e. “I got two hours of sleep last night. I’m not in my right mind”).

Feeling emotions is an opportunity to externalize internal energy that may be having a negative impact on your system. It can prevent emotions from being bottled up, lingering, or taking a toll without our awareness. Sometimes five minutes of feeling sad and then crying can prevent a day of unhelpful physical stress or mental rumination.

Counseling is an opportunity to talk through stressors and symptoms, and gain insight into current patterns between your body, thoughts, and emotions. A counselor can help you develop personalized interventions for responding to your physical, mental, emotional needs. Counseling can help with processing grief and accessing acceptance. A counselor can also answer questions and recommend further resources.



UW Food Pantry (

UW Recreation Class Pass (

Somatic experiencing of distress:

Grounding strategies (

Coping with suicidal thoughts (

Headspace app (

UWCC 24-hour counselor support (1-866-743-7732,

UWCC Groups & Workshops (