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The Distress Cycle

Pay attention

When distress happens, it feels like chaos, but it usually follows a predictable pattern. People who are unfamiliar with the pattern often don’t realise what is gripping them until it’s too late. By learning the distress cycle, you will learn to recognise the cycle as it unfolds, before you make a regrettable action.

Dr Al Griskaitis and Jess O’Garr of

Break it down:

Complete this worksheet after every episode of distress so you can learn about your Distress Cycle.

HINT: Often doing the opposite of your urge will improve the situation e.g. in anger when the urge is attack, the opposite is show empathy. “Gracefully exiting” from a tense situation is often helpful if you can’t think of a better action.

Get acquainted

Learn The Distress Cycle well enough that you could teach it. If you memorise it, you may be able to recognise distress in the moment before it overwhelms you. That will lessen the feeling of emotional chaos.

Use any future distress as an opportunity to learn from that distress episode by going through this worksheet. Don’t squander any opportunity to learn from your distress.

Working through the Distress Cycle will help you recognise distress as it is building. You will feel more in control and that will help you to become more emotionally skilful.

Overreactions may mean that we got the meaning of what “Triggered” us incorrect

Snap judgements are when we instantly personalise an event/cue, we are said to be “triggered”. Sometimes our Snap Judgement is correct. Sometimes it’s not. Noticing your Snap Judgement and challenging it by thinking of an alternate explantation is a powerful skill.

It can greatly reduce Distress and relationship problems. It is the snap judgement of the meaning of the event which causes the emotion. If the emotion is intense enough we feel it in our bodies.

Our heart may pound, we may feel hot/tense/shaky, our breathing may change. Adrenaline and the nervous system make massive changes to our physical state. These changes cause us to become less logical and results in the emotion amplifying.

Use this work sheet after becoming Distressed to see the patterns of what “triggers” you

Every time you become distressed, using the Distress Cycle worksheet will give you insight into what pushes your buttons.

Your Snap Judgements are the result of your biases. You may not have insight into those biases just yet, but you can start to gain insight by figuring out your snap judgements.

You can start to change the course of distress so that it no longer leads to regrettable actions. That’s a critical skill. If you record your reflex judgements and alternate explanations, you can use them to figure out your biases.

Once you’ve got your biases figured out, you know what needs to be tackled for real change.


Look for trends

Keep worksheets together for later so you can look for patterns as you understand what pushes your buttons and reveal your biases.

You will also learn the signals or physical feelings that your body gives you when overwhelm is imminent.

Once you can recognise the Distress Cycle unfolding you are better positioned to apply a skill to stop the distress in its tracks.