I shouldn't have to feel discomfort and pain - I can't stand them and must avoid them at all costs.
This belief, along with belief number four, is possibly the most common underlying cause of distress in human beings, as well as the one people seem most unconscious of! A concept developed by psychologist Albert Ellis, low discomfort-tolerance (LDT) arises from believing that discomfort is intolerable and therefore must be avoided at all costs.
It involves awfulising and intolerance about discomfort (including the discomfort of negative emotions), with an internal demand that it be avoided. It is based on beliefs like:
This condition is closely related to low frustration-tolerance (LFT). Frustration is uncomfortable, and discomfort is frustrating. Often one expression is used to refer to both types.
How LDT creates distress
Low discomfort-tolerance contributes to distress in many ways:
Discomfort anxiety is the emotional tension that results when people believe that their comfort (or life) is threatened, that they should or must feel good (and not get feel bad), and that it is awful and unbearable (rather than merely inconvenient or disadvantageous) when they are exposed to physical or emotional discomfort.
Worrying is based on a belief like: Because would be awful, and I couldnt stand it, I must worry about it in case it happens.
Avoidance. If events and circumstances are seen as intolerable, too hard to bear and too difficult to overcome, you are likely to develop a demand that they be avoided. However, it is in our interests to undergo some difficult experiences, such as grief after a loss or the discomfort of personal change. Avoidance will only create greater problems later on.
Secondary disturbance refers to the common human tendency to have a problem about having a problem. People often make themselves anxious about being anxious, depressed about being depressed, anxious about feeling guilty, and guilty about feeling angry. Secondary problems result from:
When you worry about feeling unhappy, demand you not feel unhappy, or put yourself down for feeling unhappy, you make yourself more unhappy!
Short-range enjoyment, another common human tendency, is the seeking of immediate pleasure or avoidance of pain at the cost of long-term stress. Examples include such things as alcohol, drug and food abuse; watching television at the expense of exercising; practising unsafe sex; or overspending to feel better.
Procrastination. Short-range enjoyment and the avoidance of discomfort may cause you to put off difficult tasks or unpleasant situations - which leads to more stress in the long run.
Addictive tendencies. Low discomfort-tolerance is a key factor in the development of addictions (Ellis, McInerney, DiGiuseppe & Yeager: Rational-Emotive Therapy with Alcoholics and Substance Abusers. Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1988.) To resist the impulse of the moment and go without is too uncomfortable or frustrating. It seems easier to give in to the urge to misuse alcohol, take drugs, gamble, or exercise obsessively. Much addictive behaviour serves to help people avoid pain. Most substance abusers are, in effect, medicating themselves to get rid of bad feelings. Unfortunately, once this tendency is established, it is hard to give up. Addictions create stress in the long run through damage to the body, strained relationships, and the distress of withdrawal.
Negativity and complaining. Low discomfort-tolerance may cause you to become distressed over small hindrances and setbacks, overconcerned with unfairness, and prone to make comparisons between your own and others circumstances. Negativity tends to alienate others, with the loss of their support.
Failure to use stress management skills. Low tolerance is a key reason people may learn strategies for managing stress but give up on using them.
Overcoming low discomfort-tolerance
The ability to tolerate frustration and discomfort is central to emotional health. High tolerance will keep you from overreacting to things you dislike. It will help you tackle problems and issues rather than avoid them. It will enable you to take risks and try new experiences.
What is high tolerance?
High tolerance means accepting the reality of discomfort, and keeping its badness in perspective.
To accept frustration and discomfort is to acknowledge that, while you may dislike it, discomfort is a reality. It exists, and there is no Law of the Universe says it should not exist (though you may prefer it not). You expect to experience appropriate negative emotions like concern, remorse, regret, sadness, annoyance, and disappointment. But you avoid exaggerating these emotions (by telling yourself you cant stand them) into anxiety, guilt, shame, depression, hostile anger, hurt, or self-pity.
To keep discomfort in perspective is to regard it as unpleasant rather than awful. You dislike rejection, pain, bad health, financial insecurity and other unwanted circumstances - but you believe that you can cope with the discomfort when they happen to you.
High tolerance will help you in many ways. You will be:
From avoidance to tolerance
See the list of typical discomfort-intolerance thoughts below. Alongside each is a more realistic alternative.
Getting into action to raise your discomfort-tolerance
Know when you are engaging in low-tolerance behaviour designed to avoid discomfort or frustration. Keep a log of such behaviour for several weeks or longer. Watch for things like:
The technique of exposure is the best way to increase your tolerance. Make a list of things you typically avoid - situations, events, thoughts, risks and so on. Commit yourself to face at least one of these each day. Actively confront discomfort by going into uncomfortable situations. Instead of trying to get away from the frustration or discomfort as you normally would, stay with the discomfort until it diminishes of its own accord.
You can prepare yourself to cope with the discomfort by using rational self-analysis, imagery, and the blow-up technique. Afterwards, do a catastrophe scale to get your reaction to the discomfort into perspective
Seek long-range enjoyment
Like most people, you probably want to enjoy life. As well as avoid distress, you want to experience pleasure. And you probably want to get your pleasure now, not tomorrow. But there are times when it is in our interests to forgo immediate pleasure - in order to have greater enjoyment in the longer term.
There are two parts to this principle:
The principle can be summed up as follows: live for the present with an eye to the future. In other words, seek to get as much pleasure and enjoyment as you can in the present - while taking into account the desirability of enjoying your life in the long term.
Here is how you can develop long-range enjoyment:
Be willing to take reasonable risks
Human beings, by nature, seek safety, predictability, and freedom from fear. But humans also pursue risk. A totally secure life would be a boring one. To grow as a person and improve your quality of life means being prepared to take some chances.
What we are talking about is a willingness to take sensible risks in order to get more out of life and avoid the distress of boredom, listlessness and dissatisfaction. Here are some example areas of risk-taking that relate to increasing your discomfort-tolerance:
Here are some suggestions for increasing your willingness to take risks:
Other helpful resources
Links within this programme
Increasing your tolerance
Raising your tolerance for discomfort will happen when you change your view of it. Here is a new belief to help you do this:
'Why should I in particular not feel discomfort and pain? I dont like them, but I can stand them. Also, my life would be very restricted if I always avoided discomfort.'