The term DISTRESS INTOLERANCE refers to a frame of mind in which we consider the mental pain, anguish or discomfort we are experiencing to be UTTERLY INTOLERABLE AND UNBEARABLE so that we become frantic and desperate to avoid it/escape it.
The emotions we feel unable to tolerate usually belong to three main categories; these are:
- Emotions connected to sadness (such as depression, shame and guilt)
- Emotions connected to fear (such as dread, anxiety and terror)
- Emotions connected to anger (such as hatred, rage and frustration)
Those who have suffered severe childhood trauma, especially if, as a result, they have gone on to develop Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), tend to feel emotions particularly intensely, tend to have impaired ability to control their emotions, and tend not to be adept at self-soothing/ self-comforting/ self-compassion and are therefore much more likely to suffer from DISTRESS INTOLERANCE than the average person.
Unsurprisingly, the more we tell ourselves our feelings are unbearable and intolerable, the more difficult they become to manage. In effect, we start to feel bad about the fact that we feel bad. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as meta-worry (worrying about the fact that we worry) and adds a superfluous layer of suffering to our already less than optimal mood state.
A simple example of such meta-worrying would be:
‘My constant worrying is ruining my life.’ (but doing nothing to address one’s worrying)
THE PARADOX OF TRYING TO ESCAPE AND ‘RUNAWAY’ FROM OUR MENTAL DISTRESS
Counter-intuitively, research suggests that when we mentally struggle hard to stop feeling our emotional distress, frequently the effect is actually to intensify it (rather like thrashing about in quicksand – we just sink deeper in).
HOW OUR BELIEF SYSTEM IS LINKED TO OUR STRESS INTOLERANCE :
Individuals who find distress very difficult to tolerate tend to have a set of beliefs that contribute to this intolerance; such beliefs may include :
- it is essential I rid myself of these feelings immediately
- these feelings are going to send me permanently insane
- these feelings mean I’m a weak and pathetic person
- these feelings are completely unacceptable
Such beliefs are sometimes referred to as catastrophizing beliefs and worsen our psychological state; cognitive therapy can help us to reduce catastrophizing thoughts.
HOW WE TRY TO ESCAPE OUR MENTAL DISTRESS
Three ways in which we try to escape our mental distress are as follows:
- dissociation (self-numbing)
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
1) AVOIDANCE :
For example, avoiding social situations due to social anxiety or avoiding going outside due to agoraphobia.
2) DISSOCIATING /SELF- NUMBING :
People may try to achieve this by using alcohol, drugs or overeating
3) SELF-HARM :
For example, some people cut themselves in an attempt to release emotional distress; this may be because the physical pain detracts from the psychological pain and/or because physical self-harm releases endorphins (the body’s natural pain-killers) into the brain.
WHY THESE METHODS DON’T WORK :
There are obvious problems with these methods which I list below :
- whilst they may afford some short-term relief their long-term effects are damaging
- relying on negative coping methods such as those detailed above erodes self-esteem and increases feelings of depression
- continually ‘running away from’ and desperately trying to avoid difficulties means one never provides oneself with the opportunity to learn how to deal with them effectively or how to cope with distress using healthier methods
- by constantly avoiding distressing emotions (e.g. by using drugs and alcohol) one deprives oneself of the opportunity to put one’s catastrophic beliefs (see above) to the test (e,g. the catastrophic belief that one’s feelings of distress are intolerable) and, hopefully, prove them to be inaccurate.
LEARNING DISTRESS TOLERANCE :
By learning to interpret distress differently (e.g. by changing our catastrophizing belief system in relation to distressing feelings) and how to develop healthier ways of coping with uncomfortable/difficult emotions we can start to put together a set of skills which will help us to cultivate distress tolerance.
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.