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.
Right – so last time I talked about removing certain thoughts from your mental repertoire, particularly anticipatory thoughts (where you anticipate bad outcomes if you take minor risks like getting in a lift or going to the supermarket or talking at a meeting). I also talked about removing catastrophic thoughts (where you add catastrophic words, like ‘OMG!!! wouldn’t that be just the worst thing that could ever happen’ when talking about something fairly trivial like blushing or feeling slightly anxious. There are also inflexions that then often go on top of the catastrophic words, like a really exagerated tone (often high-pitched terror) that is played out either in your own head or verbally conveyed to another person.
OK – last blog I talked about how according to Smart Therapy – if you want to strengthen some aspect of your mental experience, you pay lots of attention to it. So if you would like to build a stronger identity (for both yourself and others) as someone who is smart at mathematics then you pay heaps of attention to maths: you sit there and study algebra for hours on end, you do maths puzzles, you enrol in maths courses, you talk endlessly about maths equations, and you read tonnes of maths books. Very soon you become a unmitigated nerd and feel extremely proud of being so!
OK – last blog I talked about how we have the capacity to have exactly the same amount of control over a ‘body’ event (like lifting a finger) as over a ‘mental’ event (like a scary thought, feeling, memory or image). Now I want to go some way towards explaining how we can achieve the high levels of mental control that I am describing.
The first thing to note, is that none of us is born with a ‘perfect’ brain. All brains are limited. We are all born into imperfect environments and we build our brains exactly in accordance with that environment.
Learning mental control is going to take quite a few blogs – so that you fully understand it and how to achieve it. I cannot get everything written in one posting, so stick with it.
Just to humour me – I’d like you to do a little exercise:
Put both your hands flat on a table and then just lift up the index finger of your dominant hand while you keep all your other fingers flat on the table. Now, stop lifting up that finger and place it flat again. Then lift up that same finger one more time, and then stop lifting it and place it flat again.
At the end of my last blog, I talked about how taking charge and taking control are at the very heart of recovery of almost all ‘clinical’ problems. The most essential way of taking charge and ensuring strong mental health throughout life is through exercising mental control.
To help you exert the level of mental control you need for recovery, it is important to understand how your brain works at a physiological level.
One thing that I think needs to be noted is that it is not a coincidence that almost every person I see in my anxiety clinic has come from a ‘difficult’ background. A difficult background simply means that objectively a person has, on average, experienced more distressing events in her or his childhood than other people have experienced. These events could be all sorts of things, like parental separation or divorce, death of someone close, serious illness, school bullying, excessive parental criticism, physical or sexual assault, excessive moving from place to place, or over-protection from parents (which teaches children that the world is a frightening place that they need protection from, and, which also teaches children that they cannot trust themselves and depend upon their own resources and, therefore have to be rescued or over-protected).