Distress Tolerance (part I)

I have said before (in my company podcast – Noggin Notes) that emotions can be described metaphorically as a wave. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. As such, they are temporary and typically they last no longer than a few seconds.

Learning to ride this metaphorical wave is critical for dealing with life because getting through one wave of a certain magnitude lets the brain know that it can get through another wave, possibly of a larger magnitude. As life goes on, the stakes typically get higher and the emotional waves get bigger. Tolerating the small ones leads to an ability to tolerate the larger ones, and so forth.

However, this metaphor has a flip side to it, which is that not learning to ride the wave leads to the inability to ride other waves. In childhood, if we fail to get through our distressing moments – say, putting the toys away because dinner is ready – we will condition our brains (and our minds, via our belief systems) to believe that they cannot get through much larger distresses and, in turn, avoid potential distress.

This avoidance of potential distress (and really, almost anything can be potentially distressing) leads to avoidance of emotion overall and, ultimately, avoidance of anything that could create a loss of control. Many kinds of bad things can fall out from this and I will not list them here, but suffice to say that most mental illness and social struggles stem from a lack of emotional awareness and tolerance.  

In my subsequent columns, I will share how to recognize emotions (and their waves), how to ride them, and how to be okay when things do not go the way that you expected or would have liked. Understanding our own distress will help us not only in our own life, but in helping others navigate theirs too, such as our children.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Julie says:

    Good advice.

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