Emotions are a part of being human and we all experience them. They have evolved with us to help us survive by prompting us to react in effective ways in our environment. Some emotions make us feel good and comfortable, such as feeling safe, warm, content, while others make us feel uncomfortable, such as feeling frightened, frustrated, hurt or sad.
While most of us dislike unpleasant emotions, the majority of people can accept them as an inevitable part of life and “ride the wave of emotion” however unpleasant it is as it occurs. However for some people distressing emotions are “absolutely unbearable”, and they feel that they “can’t stand” or “can’t face” uncomfortable emotions, instead developing unhelpful strategies to deal with distressing emotions.
What is Distress Intolerance?
Distress intolerance can be defined as a perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive or uncomfortable emotions, and is accompanied by a desperate need to escape the uncomfortable emotions.
Unfortunately, the more emotional distress is feared, struggled with and avoided, the worse the distress gets. Fearing and avoiding distress is actually adding more uncomfortable emotions to the distress, and magnifying it.
How does Distress Intolerance Develop?
Some people may be more likely to be intolerant of emotional distress than others due to a combination of biological and environmental factors.
Biological: Some people may be more sensitive to negative emotions, experience them more easily, at a higher level of intensity, and for a longer duration than others.
Environmental: Growing up through childhood, adolescence and throughout life, some people may not have been shown effective ways to deal with emotional distress appropriately. Perhaps they may have been punished for crying when they were sad, or watched adults drink alcohol to deal with their strong emotions.
Also, sometimes people accidentally find unhelpful ways to make themselves feel better, such as causing themselves physical pain, and this behaviour becomes reinforced because they felt better temporarily after doing it.
Common Ways of Escaping Distress
Avoiding Distress – People with distress intolerance may try to avoid whatever causes the distress:
- Situational Avoidance – avoiding any situation, scenario, place, cue, person, activity etc that is likely to bring on distressing emotions.
- Reassurance Seeking or Checking – Trying to quickly sooth distressing emotions by excessively seeking reassurance from other people or engaging in a repetitive behaviour.
- Distraction and Suppression – Trying to push away the distress, by telling yourself to “stop it” as soon as you feel distress, or finding an activity to distract yourself from the feeling, instead of sitting with it and feeling what needs to be felt.
Numbing and Withdrawing – Involves engaging in activities that help you tune out from the distress. The most common forms of doing this is by turning to alcohol and drugs, but also common is binge eating and excessive sleep.
Harmful Releases – These are behaviours that while releasing or venting distress, are also directly physically damaging to the self, such as injuring or harming the self to stop the emotional discomfort. These behaviours can include burning, hair pulling, cutting, punching, scratching, biting, picking or head banging.
While any of these strategies may be helpful in the short term they cause problems in the long term because:
- The escape strategy could be damaging and cause other problems in life;
- Negative emotions usually worsen as people feel they haven’t coped well;
- People don’t learn other more helpful ways to deal with tolerating emotional distress;
- People don’t ever have the chance to see if they actually can tolerate strong emotions.
This sounds like me, what can I do?
Fortunately, things can change. No matter how your distress intolerance has come about, or how long you have been using unhelpful strategies, you can learn new and adaptive ways to tolerate distress. Distress tolerance is a great life skill to have and is beneficial for anyone to learn at any point in time in their life. Emotional discomfort is an inevitable part of life, so we all need to learn how to live with it.
A psychologist can help with:
- Identifying the emotions you find difficult, your distress intolerant beliefs, and the methods you currently use to deal with your feelings;
- Working with you to help you see emotions differently and learn to accept distress;
- Improving feelings of distress and developing an action plan to deal with future distress.
If you are interested in finding out more about this, and how a psychologist may help, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Greta Neilsen is a Loganholme psychologist, experienced in the treatment of depression and anxiety in adults of all ages. She endeavours to provide her clients with a safe space to understand the challenges they face, as they develop ways to overcome their difficulties.
To make an appointment with Loganholme Psychologist Greta Neilsen, please call (07) 3067 9129 or you can book online today.
- Saulsman, L., & Nathan, P. (2012) Facing your Feelings: Learning to Tolerate Distress. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.