• Cody Curbo, Med, LPC, LCDC

Autism and Coping Skills: Effective Ways to Cope with Stress

The desire to protect the people that we love is a natural part of being a parent. However, when it comes to protecting our loved ones, we become even more diligent if they happen to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Western culture teaches us to avoid pain and evaluate pain as “bad” to eliminate all of the discomforts that might come their way. Unfortunately, anyone who has a loved one with ASD or has worked with anyone with ASD knows that any attempt to eliminate any chance of getting hurt is fighting an uphill battle. There will be times when unpleasant experiences cannot be changed, and attempting to may even lead to greater suffering in the long run.


One modality with an excellent track record for helping individuals with unwanted stress and anxiety is DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). Within DBT are several sets of protocols that can help lean into distress and come out the other side with skills to deal with the world. Although there are several skill sets in DBT, I want to give examples for today is Distress tolerance. Distress tolerance skills present an alternative to always trying to avoid or run away from pain and focus on non-judgmentally accepting and tolerating what life throws at you.


10 Effective Strategies to Tolerate Distress

Some excellent ways to practice distress tolerance are adapted from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007).

Radical Acceptance

Getting angry in response to a situation that is (perhaps understandably) upsetting prevents you from seeing what is happening. Intense emotions have a way of blinding us from the reality of the problem, which only allows the feelings to escalate. By responding in anger and telling yourself that this situation “should” not be happening, you miss the point that it is happening: with you or without you.

Radical acceptance suggests that we acknowledge the present moment (no matter what it is) without judging the events as good or bad. It encourages us to recognize that our current situation exists due to a very long chain of events that started way in the past. It does not suggest that we approve of or agree with the bad behavior of others. It simply tells us to stop trying to resist what is happening by denying it through anger or sadness. As long as we fight our present situation, we are powerless to change it. For change to come, we must first accept: This is where I am right now. Now what?

Distract Yourself from Self-Destructive Behaviors

As strange as it may be, engaging in self-destructive behaviors often brings temporary relief from emotional pain. It is a distraction from whatever emotional pain we may be feeling, which we experience as far worse than the self-destructive behaviors. Consider this; emotional distress is often the result of being hurt by others – does it make sense to continue this hurt by turning it on yourself?

Relax and Soothe Yourself

Learning to relax and self-soothe is crucial to healthy emotional functioning. When you are relaxed, your body is not in a constant state of “emergency,” preparing to fight or run away at any given moment. Most importantly, your brain is much more capable of coming up with healthy ways of coping with distress when physically relaxed. There are many ways to relax – it’s about finding what works for you: taking a hot bath/shower, taking a walk, listening to calm music (i.e., not emotionally stimulating music).

Safe-Place Visualization

Your brain and body often cannot tell the difference between what’s “really” happening and what you are imagining. Use this to your advantage. Find a place where you can be alone and undisturbed – practice visualizing a real or imaginary place that makes you feel safe and relaxed. Explore this safe place in vivid detail colors, shapes, sounds, smells. You can visit this place anytime.

Cue-Controlled Relaxation

This is a quick technique designed to reduce stress levels and muscle tension. In this case, the “cue” is a trigger or command intended to bring on relaxation. It can be something as simple as the words “relax” or “calm.” The goal is to train your body to release muscle tension in response to your cue word. Further details about how to practice this exercise are forthcoming on my blog.

Rediscover Your Values

Your values are the standards, morals, principles, and ideals that fill your life with meaning, worth, and importance. These are why we have to wake up in the morning – why we are motivated to keep going. Yet, sometimes we may feel adrift in life, unsure of the reason for doing much of anything – these are the times when we feel lost and empty. Discovering or rediscovering your values can help you tolerate emotional distress and begin to build a life worth living.

Live in the Present Moment

No matter what you do, it is always now. No matter how much you would like to go back in time to fix something that went wrong or blame someone who hurt you, it is impossible. The sincere desire to live in the past or the future creates suffering. All of the time spent dwelling in the past or focusing on the future results in something tragic: missing out on life. It’s happening right now – all around you.

Use Coping Thoughts

It is helpful to hear encouraging words during times of intense emotional distress. Sometimes a loving other is not around to provide us with the emotional support and comfort we may desire. In these times, we must be capable of giving ourselves this comfort. Coping thoughts consist of reminders of times when you’ve been strong in the past and words that give you strength. “I’m strong enough to handle what is happening to me right now.”

Self-Affirming Statements

A big part of learning how to tolerate distress involves having a solid foundation of yourself as a healthy, capable person. Believe in yourself first. Behind intense sadness, rage, and despair, a caring, loving, and strong person capable of handling extreme negative situations more healthily.

Create New Coping Strategies

Think about some intensely distressing situations that you have experienced in the past and identify how you have coped with them. Can you remember a pattern or theme to your typical coping methods (in both healthy and unhealthy ways)? What were the consequences of these healthy and unhealthy coping strategies? Finally, can you begin to imagine how you will handle future distressing events differently?

As with most things in life, practice makes perfect. Some of these skills may make total sense; others may be completely new and strange. No one thing works perfectly for everyone, and sometimes adjustments have to be made. These are but a few ideas that can come in handy when needed.


At Mind Works Counseling Services in Lubbock, TX, we specialize in Autism Counseling to help you and your loved ones during trying times and we have counselors who are trained in offering DBT. You are not alone, and you don’t have to have all of the answers. If we can be of service, please reach out.

To learn more about the Autism Counseling services we offer.

Contact us to make an appointment or to let us answer any questions you may have.


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