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Tolerating Distress

We all have emotions, and they are important to helping us navigate our world. Most of us enjoy feelings of joy, happiness, and contentment but we tend not to like the feelings of sadness, anger, and fear. As things happen to us, generally we understand that emotions are inevitable, and we learn to tolerate them. Sometimes people develop a distress intolerance to emotions that they perceive as negative and feel a need to get rid of them or avoid them. Being intolerant of experiencing emotional discomfort can breed a whole bunch of problems, as it interferes with living a fulfilling life, and can make feeling any emotional discomfort we might be experiencing worse. If you have difficulty facing your feelings or tolerating distress, then read on to learn ways to overcome this pattern.

There are many different definitions of distress intolerance. The definition that is used here is a perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive, or uncomfortable

emotions, and is accompanied by a desperate need to escape them. Let us face it, none of us want to feel less than happy. But often we learn to accept that some emotions are inevitable. The types of emotions that we try to run from or hide from are on what is often called the negative emotions: sadness, anger, and fear.

Distress intolerance develops when someone believes they are unable to cope with the emotions they are uncomfortable with and they try to escape or avoid them. How it develops is from a mixture of biological and environmental factors. There is evidence to suggest that some people experience emotions at a higher level of intensity, and for them, these emotions are painful. Therefore, they have greater difficulties coping with them. How someone is raised also influences how they deal with emotions. Emotions might not have been allowed in the childhood home or there was a punishment for crying or being angry. Others might have witnessed loved ones use unhealthy ways of dealing with emotions such as utilizing substances. Hence, they did not learn how to process their emotions.

It makes a lot of sense to try to get away from things that feel unpleasant. This strategy seems to work for other things that make us uncomfortable (hunger, pain, fire, snow). Unfortunately, when we apply the same strategy to our emotions, it seems to backfire. The more we fear, struggle with, and try to avoid any form of distress, generally the worse that distress gets. This turns our own emotions against us as it intensifies our discomfort.

Instead of fearing and fighting uncomfortable emotions and desperately trying to get rid of them, it is possible to learn how to sit with and tolerate emotional distress. We can learn that the emotion will pass and that we can cope. This will involve identifying and challenging beliefs we hold about emotions and learning to balance tolerating emotional discomfort when it does arise, with taking action to improve our emotional experiences.

If you would like to learn to increase your distress tolerance we are here to help. Call today for your appointment.


Registered Psychotherapist


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