Today I want to talk about distress intolerance. This is another type of thinking that you may like to understand a bit more about, so you can remove it from your mental repertoire along with all the other ones I have talked about over the last several weeks.
This is a bit similar to collapse thinking (last blog). However, where collapse thinking tends to lead to feelings of powerlessness and then collapse-type behaviours (like going passive and not being instrumental or verbally proactive in changing outcomes), distress intolerance arises from feeling unable to bear or tolerate certain feelings and therefore needing to exit the situation. Exiting behaviour can mean leaving the distressing situation physically (by running out of a supermarket for example) or it can mean leaving the situation mentally by dulling or deadening the brain through something like alcohol, medication, over-eating or drugs.
Distress intolerance thinking is about saying things to yourself like ‘I can’t bear this’ or ‘I can’t stand it’ or ‘I’ve got to get out of here’ or ‘I cannot get through this situation without alcohol or drugs or over-eating or similar’ . Once people have practised this type of thinking for a long time the brain becomes super-efficient at the exiting habit and it develops short-cuts whereby any distress (even tiny, miniscule amounts) simply lead directly to the exiting behaviour without awareness of the intermediate thoughts.
If you have awareness of the distress intolerance thoughts then you can, of course, just slip them off to the side and pay them no attention – and engage instead in a engaging, constructive activity. However, if you have become very brain-efficient and you just move straight to the exiting behaviour without awareness of the thoughts – then there are two main things you need to do. Firstly, know that the distress intolerance thoughts are there even if you are not aware of them. (They will be there under decades of synaptic-connection remodelling as habits are consolidated and made more precise even when they are based on an incorrect initial assumption.) You know this because you can always read your own (and others) thinking patterns by observing your own (and others) behaviours. Our (unreconstructed) behaviours reflect our thinking patterns – so, as I said in an earlier blog, if someone says they love you but they behave in a way that clearly contradicts this (by constantly being late, or not consulting you over relevant matters, or spending disproportionately large amounts of time away from you, or telling you lies, etc.) you can read their behaviour and be pretty certain that person does NOT love you – despite what she/he is saying to you or themselves. So, read your own behaviour – if you exit (physically or mentally) too readily then you are doing so because somewhere way back you learnt that you cannot tolerate distress.
Of course, when you learnt this lesson you were probably a child and you did not yet have your full brain development in order to be able to bear or tolerate the distress. As an adult you do have your full brain – so you can now tolerate distress as well as the next person – and it is important to do so (this is because it is important to demonstrate to your own brain that you actually can tolerate distress, which allows you to eventually overturn the initial incorrect assumption). So even, if you have no awareness of the distress intolerance assumptions or thinking patterns be clear that they are what started your distress intolerance exiting behaviours.
So, of course, the second thing you need to do is stop the exiting behaviour. This means no longer allowing yourself to have escape routes: you just have to stay put and learn to bear it – learn to tolerate it. No exiting by getting drunk, or by using drugs or medications to dull the distress. No exiting by over-eating to keep propping up the endorphins so as to make it all a bit more tolerable. No exiting by just dropping out of the conversation and going passive and not talking because you couldn’t tolerate the distress of taking the risk of being in the spotlight. No exiting by leaving the distressing event and curling up in the foetal position at home.
Not exiting teaches you that you can actually cope very well and without any props. Indeed, your brain is beautifully adapted to dealing with distress – you will find that with hardly any practice at all, that your brain doesn’t need anything apart from itself. Everything it needs is already within it. Tolerating distress is so much easier than you might have imagined. The more you tolerate distress, the less sensitised you become to distress. In other words, the more distress you allow yourself to encounter without exiting, the more easily you can tolerate it – and the more resilient you become in life.