Written by Michael J Theron
Whether we like it or not, we all experience emotions. Emotions are an essential part of being human and are crucial to our survival. As humans, we are designed to feel a whole range of emotions, some of which we enjoy and others that make us feel uncomfortable. We may not like it but experiencing distressing emotions is a natural part of life.
In a time when we have regularly exposed to bad news and our world is so uncertain, emotions are running high. In fact, for many, their emotions are running amok with the strain of living under the current circumstances. None of us is immune to what is happening all around us, and people are finding it increasingly difficult to remain calm and have their emotions under control. Our Emotions are in overdrive; they seem to be never-ending, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
Why is this happening?
There is a difference between disliking uncomfortable emotions versus experiencing unpleasant feelings as unbearable. Finding distressing emotions unbearable is commonly referred to as distress intolerance. What is meant by distress intolerance is a perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive or uncomfortable emotions, and is accompanied by a desperate need to escape the painful feelings. Often distress intolerance is felt during high-intensity emotional experiences such as a fight with a loved one. But can also occur for lower intensity emotions (such as remembering doing something you regret). It is not the intensity of the feeling, but how much you fear it and how much you want to get away from feeling that emotion.
In my practice, I see some people who have great difficulty dealing with guilt, shame, depression and misery, but to name a few of the different emotional states. These emotions can be accompanied by either low physiological states (e.g. low energy, fatigue, helplessness) or heightened physiological arousal (e.g. crying, increased heart rate, sweating). The paradox is that the more we try to avoid, fear or struggle with any form of distress, the worse it gets.
Distress intolerance develops through a combination of biological and environmental factors. As we grow older, we tend to find unhelpful ways to deal with our distress. We find unhealthy escape methods such as avoidance, reassurance checking (excessively seeking reassurance from others), distraction or suppression. People may try to numb themselves through the use of alcohol, substances, excessive gaming, porn or unusual amounts of sleep. In more extreme cases, we see the development of eating disorders or self-mutilation. In such cases, I would recommend that you seek professional help as soon as possible.
What can I do?
So, what needs to happen to develop distress tolerance? According to Hugo Alberts and Lucinda Poole(https://positivepsychology.com/tools/window-of-tolerance/ (2019), our Window of Tolerance (WOT) is our optimal zone of arousal, where we can cope and thrive in everyday life (based on Daniel Siegel’s concept “the Window of Tolerance”).
Step 1: Introducing the window of tolerance
When we are living within our WOT, we remain calm and composed when stressful things happen. When we are outside of our WOT, by comparison, we can go one of two ways. We either feel overwhelmed and go into what is known as “hyperarousal” or we can shut down and go into what is known as “hypo-arousal.”
These arousal states happen because our nervous system kicks in and sends us into survival mode – fight, flight, or freeze. In hyperarousal mode, we tend to be reactive and impulsive and experience an influx of negative thoughts. In hypo-arousal mode, we tend to feel extremely zoned and numb, both emotionally and physically. Learning the signs that we are either hyperaroused or hypo-aroused and then doing things that help us feel calm and safe is the practice of living within the WOT. The WOT can be narrow or wide and is different for all people and at different times in our lives.
Step 2: Your experience with the Window of Tolerance
Can you think of a time when you remained within your WOT in the face of something stressful or distressing? Describe this moment in detail below, including what triggered you? (e.g., someone cut me off in traffic). What happened in your mind and body? (e.g., felt calm, thought that this person must be in a rush). And what the outcome was? (e.g. no adverse effects, the event was an insignificant blip in my day).
Step 3: Signs of a narrowing Window of Tolerance
To help you stay in your WOT more often, it is helpful to identify signs that your WOT is narrowing. That is that you are stepping outside of your WOT to either a hyperaroused state or hypo-aroused state.
- What are the signs that you have entered into a hyperaroused state? For example, you might notice that you become snappy towards loved ones, or have a short temper, or feel agitated and irritable. I recommend that you take a piece of paper and divide it into four sections. Label one section hyperaroused and write down what happens to you when you are in this state.
- What are the signs that you have entered into a hypo-aroused state? For instance, you might feel disconnected from people around you, have little or nothing to contribute to conversations, and feel emotionally flat or even numb. Add these below the section you wrote when you are in a hypo-aroused state.
Step 4: Staying within the Window of Tolerance
Thinking back to that time when you remained within your WOT (Step 2), and thinking about your signs of a narrowing WOT (Step 3):
- What are some practical things that you can do to move back into your WOT when hyperaroused? For example, you might take some deep breaths, or take a time out, or practise meditation. Write these in the block opposite the section on when you were hyperaroused.
- What are some practical things that you can do to move back into your WOT when hypo-aroused? For example, you might go for a brisk walk, or call a friend to talk or engage in expressive writing to discover underlying emotions.Write these in the section opposite where you wrote what happens when you were hypo-aroused.
- Now you have a ‘map’ of how to manage your emotions when either hyperaroused or hypo-aroused. You need to find what works best for you to keep you in your WOT.
Some further tips to improve your distress tolerance are:
1. Improve your sleep (usual sleep hygiene etc. and anxiety management)
2. Natural Daylight
3. Create a routine
5. Eat well
6. Stay hydrated (and caffeine management)
7. Mindfulness and meditation etc.
8. Maintain social connections
10. Set future goals
If none of the above help, please reach out to a registered professional, either myself or your doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist. Thank you for taking the time to read this and stay strong…..you’ve got this.