It is perhaps not surprising that many people want to know how to keep high levels of happiness, motivation, confidence, and positivity in their lives.
However, the sheer diversity of experience across our lifespan means that maintaining a constant state, positive or otherwise, is simply not possible. Our human condition is defined by the full spectrum of emotion.
Difficult emotional states can be like neon signage. These signs point to areas in our life that require our attention, so we can adapt and grow beyond current experience into more effective versions of ourselves. Accepting suffering, tolerating emotions which can be labelled as “negative” even though these states often promote the best opportunities for learning and growth, allows for improved quality of life.
In comparison, avoiding suffering can be visualised as opening an inner void space. Yes, attempting to fill that void means moving away from suffering, at least in the short-term. But it also means moving towards increasing use of suppression and distraction as coping strategies to mask the emotional distress, eg seeking immediacy and pleasure over meaning. In the long-term avoidance can become cyclical, counter-productive, and promote suffering. Such chronic distress goes against the initial goal state of refusing difficult emotional states.
Social psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) pioneered the concept of approach-avoidance in relation to the experience of stress. The core concept of approach-avoidance acknowledges that setting and then working to achieve a goal can create positive and negative consequences. This duality, where a goal is both appealing and unappealing, highlights an underlying conflict that occurs when we engage in decision making.
Consider a simple example of enrolling in university as an adult. The initial decision is likely to include both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, which drives approach behaviour, our goal may represent self- and professional development, financial opportunity following graduation, as well as intellectual stimulation. However, potential negatives may include focusing attention away from family/friends, balancing study with employment, added stress, and financial sacrifice during the degree. Perceived negative consequences drive avoidance, such that these factors may lead to disengagement from goal directed planning/behaviour over time if they overwhelm the positives. Herein lies the approach-avoidance conflict with regards to goal setting.
However, once a goal is decided upon, achievement is affected by approach-avoidance conflict within short-term decision making. The role of emotional regulation is emphasised here, in the present moment. To continue with our example, procrastination illustrates how long-term goal setting (university qualification) is compromised by immediate behaviours (not studying). Positive appraisal is often strong at the planning stage, building good intentions and a desire for the overarching achievement. However, as the actual behavioural tasks are approached negative factors, including anxiety, can create indecision and the emotional space to justify avoidant coping.
Avoidance reduces immediate anxiety. Not having to engage with an immediate stressor allows state anxiety to drop as we decrease reactivity and distract ourselves with a comparatively pleasant activity. Reduced state anxiety can be perceived as improved coping in the short-term. However, avoidance breeds chronic anxiety and stress over time. This is because constructive problem solving and goal directed behaviours are negated, preventing meaningful achievement.
In this way, inability to tolerate distress has both short- and long-term negative consequences that can tip the approach-avoidance conflict towards disengagement from an otherwise viable goal. Fundamentally, avoidant coping is not actually improving your ability to cope at all.
Being able to persist with strong or escalating emotion, such as anxiety, in the short-term to unlock our long-term goals encourages approach behaviour. There is a natural flow on effect when we see ourselves being goal directed, promoting growth of self-confidence, creativity, capacity, and wellbeing.
Consciously choosing approach behaviour over avoidance may require looking at your existing skill set, eg address avoidant coping (including self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, food etc to numb reality-based emotion), self-care, and distress tolerance. Resilience is a framework built over time. In this way feared and actual negative consequences are less likely to overwhelm us on the way to achieving our goals, whatever they may be.
Distress Tolerance Skill Building
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) offers useful, established strategies for building distress tolerance skills. DBT encourages those starting out with lower distress tolerance to understand that difficult or painful experiences may in fact be unavoidable. Learning to tolerate, and in fact accept, distress, opens us to the possibility of not fighting or judging what is occurring.
Radical acceptance means choosing to see life as it is. It also means moving away from perceived barriers like, “I can’t stand this,” or, “This isn’t fair, it shouldn’t be this way.” Radical acceptance empowers us to re-orient, deepen our understanding, problem solve, and engage with approach behaviour for change management. After all, acceptance does not equal agreement.
I = Imagery
- Visualise in detail a relaxing scene or a successful interaction. Turn up the colours, volume, textures.
- Regulate the breath, emphasising a slower and deeper out breath.
M = Meaning
- Identify the meaningfulness or purpose inside of the distressing situation. Find a silver lining.
- Being able to consciously choose our attitude provides meaning and acceptance of consequences.
P = Pray
- Depending on your belief system about God or a Higher Power, this may be a good option.
- Identify with martialling strength and to be open to the moment.
R = Relaxation
- Focus on deep breathing, meditation, and/or progressive muscle relaxation to create physical calm.
- Engage in activities that relax you, eg listen to or make music, swimming, being in nature.
O = One thing in the moment
- Concentrate on mindful awareness, with the objective being to keep attention (coordinating thought and action) on an activity in the present moment.
- Be proactive and re-orient your attention if it switches to other things that aren’t being prioritised.
V = Vacation
- Allow for a time out. Consider factoring in break periods to imagine or do something pleasant.
- Vacations vary in time, but be clear about time frames, eg 5 minutes for tea versus a day trip.
- Time out can also be resource management, eg ignore the telephone and emails for a few hours.
E = Encouragement
- Self-talk is important. Realistic positive self-appraisal means we can be our own biggest support.
- Develop a supportive network – be that socially, professionally, sports or family based.
Focusing on Pros and Cons
Pros and cons lists can be extremely useful for rational decision making, when we need to evaluate where the positive and negative consequences lie.
- At the top of a blank page, write in your own words the decision you are trying to make.
- Draw a line down the middle of the page, top to bottom.
- Pros: Dot point all the perceived positives of the decision in the left column.
- Cons: Dot point all the perceived negatives of the decision in the right column.
- At the bottom of the page, note consequences or considerations that don’t seem to easily fit into a column. Research these points. Where possible include them in the appropriate column.
- Re-evaluate your decision given the number and relative importance of items across each column.
A pros and cons list takes on added worth when we apply it to the idea of distress tolerance. The decision here is whether you can get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable for longer. The columns then address 1) what are the benefits (pros) of tolerating distress, versus 2) what are the disadvantages (cons) of tolerating the distress? The right column then asks us to consider what alternate coping would be put in place otherwise, eg procrastination or self-medicating, and what are the pros and cons of these forms of coping.
Emotional growth through approach behaviour also includes being proactive with reflective learning. Rather than avoiding or minimising the past consequences of not tolerating distress, visualise what could have been different if the stress had been tolerated and the negative consequences not overwhelmed decision making. It’s okay to focus on positive feelings, like a sense of accomplishment, in the midst of suffering to gain a sense of purpose and meaning.
Author: Dr Amanda White, PhD, B Psych (Hons), B Beh Sc, DipH, MAPS.
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- Boyd, R.L., Robinson, M. D., & Fetterman, A. K. (2011). Miller (1944) revisited: Movement times in relation to approach and avoidance conflicts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1192-1197.
- Lewin, K (1935). A Dynamic Theory of Personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Linehan, M. (2014). DBT Skills Training Manual (2nd ed). New York: Guilford Publications.
- Miller, N. E. (1944). Experimental Studies of Conflict. In J.M. Hunt (Ed.), Personality and the Behavior Disorders (Vol. 1). New York: Ronald.
- Miller, N. E. (1959). Liberalization of basic S-R concepts: Extension to conflict behavior, motivation, and social learning. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of science (Vol. 2). New York: McGraw-Hill.