Distress Tolerance

Distress tolerance is our ability to stay with our own uncomfortable feelings.     The knee-jerk, unreflective reaction to distress is avoidance.  We’ll do almost anything to avoid feeling our own distress:  laugh about things that are terrible, bury our feelings in compulsive behaviours,   go deeply down De Nile…however, none of these things helps us to become more ourselves.  They only serve to get us through avoiding our own distress.


Much of the work of psychotherapy is about tolerating our emotional pain.  Sometimes we need a witness:  someone else to hear our distress.  Knowing that we don’t have to bear it alone can be a big help.   Sometimes we need someone else to label it for us:  yes, that’s distress, or anxiety, or fear, or grief.  That’s what is going on for you there.    Sometimes we need to know that we are able to tolerate it.  Yes, this is fear (or anger or sadness or rage) and it doesn’t last forever and it won’t kill me and I can be here with it.  I can maybe even sit down with my distress and become curious about it.   Hello, distress.  My, oh, my, you are big, aren’t you?  You are a very big feeling, and very intense.  Hello, there, big intense distress.   I can sit here with you, without needing to run away, or needing to change you or needing to change me.

What happens when you increase your distress tolerance?  There are a number of waterfall effects.  First, you can tolerate other people’s distress without reaction or taking it personally.  Second, you tend to have less distress.  Specifically, you might react to a current situation but you will no longer be acting our  your fears for your own distress, so a whole layer of complication is removed.

Third, and maybe most important, tolerating your own emotional pain allows for freedom in your interactions and in your life.  Imagine what you would do if you knew you would not fail?  That’s one of those contemporary slogans designed to uplift and inspire.  But honestly, what if failure wasn’t an issue because you could tolerate the discomfort that might come from failure?   If you knew you could tolerate the FEELINGS that you fear, then you’d have very little to fear.  We don’t have a lot of saber-toothed tigers in our world.  Mostly we are afraid of being looked at, being the subject of others’ thoughts and words, and of social consequences such as shunning.   If you knew, KNEW, that you could tolerate any discomfort that might ensue from an activity, you’d have less fear about actually doing it.

So….it sounds like a winner….increase your distress tolerance and you decrease your distress.  Increase distress tolerance and increase your sense of freedom to be yourself.   Notice when you are experiencing distress, watch how you try to avoid or mitigate it, and then just stop and be with your distress.  What happens then?


Here’s a link to some good self-help materials on developing distress tolerance:  http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/infopax.cfm?Info_ID=54   Copy and paste into your browser if just clicking doesn’t relocate you.


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