Understanding Distress Intolerance

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional
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Nobody enjoys the feelings that come with negative emotions. When we feel angry, fearful, anxious, or depressed, or when someone hurts our feelings, the resulting sensations are uncomfortable. We accept this as a fact of life, and we try to move on.

But what if you find unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions so upsetting that you’re desperate to avoid or escape from them? If this is you, you may be distress intolerant.

Signs and symptoms

Distress intolerance actually encompasses a variety of issues. A key feature is that the intensity of the emotion is less of an issue than how unpleasant, or fearful, or unbearable it is to you. Emotions are strange things that, in and of themselves, are not distressing. A friend of mine is a writer. He will actively evoke emotions in himself, often through music, to write a particular passage that is, for example, distressing. Some people enjoy horror movies because they like to be frightened. Some feel empowered when they get angry and throw their weight around. The emotion itself isn’t the issue, but the way we respond to it is.

It’s common to find people who simply can’t cope with “hot” emotions. These are often, but not always, to do with recent traumas. Raw emotions following a death, a breakup, or a heated argument simply want to be pushed to one side until things cool down. Time is usually the healer, but with distress intolerance, time may make very little difference.

An unhealthy reaction

In the United Kingdom, Prince Harry has spoken out about his reaction to the death of his mother, Princess Diana. He describes “20 years of not thinking about the death of my mother, Diana, followed by two years of chaos.” This nicely illustrates the problems we incur if we deny, push aside, or try to skirt around negative emotions. At one level, it makes perfect sense to want to protect yourself from distressing emotions — but our emotions don’t seem to see it that way. Of course, everyone’s reactions are different. The fact that Prince Harry felt anger and anxiety, and was on the verge of punching someone before he sought help, doesn’t mean everyone responds the same way.

If negative sensations start to surface, the person affected typically believes they simply won’t be able to cope with them. They may think they will go crazy, or lose control. They may perceive it as a sign of weakness, that it’s stupid and unacceptable. The overwhelming beliefs that what they feel is unbearable, wrong, and has to be stopped or escaped from are all very common, but they are entirely inaccurate.

Treatment

As previously mentioned, it’s the way we perceive emotions rather than the emotions themselves that are key. Once we learn to start seeing emotions in a different way, then healing can begin. Facing your feelings should be done through nonjudgmental ways. Mindfulness, for example, is a way of allowing feelings to surface and seeing them for what they are, but not buying into the effects they can evoke. If negative emotions are deep-rooted and embedded from an early age, then some form of talk therapy could be very useful.

See More Helpful Articles:

8 Reasons to Try Mindfulness

10 Steps to Controlling Your Anger

Managing Emotional Turmoil