Distress Intolerance || Effective Ways to Tolerate Distress


  • Distress intolerance refers to a perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant emotions.
  • It is linked to a fear of experiencing negative emotion.
  • Distress intolerance can occur for both high and low intensity emotions.


Distress intolerance refers to a perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive, or uncomfortable emotions, and is accompanied by a desperate need to escape the uncomfortable emotions. Difficulties tolerating distress are often linked to a fear of experiencing negative emotion. Distress intolerance often revolves around high intensity emotional experiences, such as when the emotion is strong and powerful (e.g., intense despair after and argument with a loved one, or intense fear whilst giving a speech). However, it could also occur for lower intensity emotions (e.g., nervousness about an upcoming medical examination, sadness when remembering a past relationship break-up). It is not the intensity of the emotion itself, but rather how much you fear it, how unpleasant it feels to you, how unbearable it seems, and how much you want to get away from it, that determines if you are intolerant of distress.


The more we fear, struggle with, and try to avoid any form of distress, generally the worse that distress gets. Our fear and avoidance of the distress actually magnifies the distress.


Distress tolerance require us to accept our current situation in a non-judgemental way. We must learn how to tolerate discomfort without demanding that people or things be “different”.

Getting angry in response to a situation that is upsetting prevents you from seeing what is really happening. Intense emotions have a way of blinding us from the reality of the situation, which only allows the emotions to escalate.

Acceptance means being willing to experience a situation as it is, rather than how we want it to be. It is about acknowledging the present moment (no matter what it is) without judging the events as good or bad.

Accepting distress is not about having to like emotional discomfort, or being resigned to feeling miserable, or wallowing in negative emotions. Rather, accepting distress is about seeing the negative emotions for what it is, and changing how you pay attention to emotion. Reacting in an accepting way towards your emotion, often changes the effect the emotion has on you.


Engaging in self-destructive behaviours often brings temporary relief from emotional pain. The most common ways of doing this would be by using alcohol or drugs to escape emotional discomfort. Binge eating is also a common way to alleviate distress. Excessive sleep can also be used in an unhelpful way to zone out from and escape unpleasant emotions.

These types of behaviours can serve as distractions from whatever emotional pain we may be feeling. In the long-term, self-destructive behaviours like binge drinking, drug use, and emotional eating, make our emotions worse and prolong the challenges we are facing by distancing us from healthier ways of coping.


Learning to relax and self-soothe is fundamental for healthy emotional functioning. When you are relaxed, your body is not in a constant state of emergency, preparing to fight or run away at any given moment. Most importantly, your brain is much more capable of coming up with healthy ways of coping with stress when physically relaxed. There are many ways to relax – read our tips on getting your self-care routine started (self-care-you-cant-pour-from-an-empty-cup.html)


Fun fact! your brain and body often cannot tell the difference between what’s really happening and what you are imagining. Use this to your advantage. Find a place where you can be alone and practice visualising a real or imaginary place that makes you feel safe and relaxed. Explore this safe place in vivid detail


Your values are the standards, morals, principles, and ideals that fill your life with meaning, worth, and importance. These are the reasons that we have to wake up in the morning – why we’re motivated to keep going. Sometime we may feel adrift in life, unsure of the reason for doing much of anything – these are the times when we feel lost and empty. Discovering or rediscovering your values can help you tolerate emotional distress and begin to build a life worth living.


No matter what you do, it is always now. No matter how much you would like to go back in time to fix something that went wrong or blame someone who hurt you, it is impossible. The desire to live in the past or in the future creates suffering. All of the time spent dwelling in the past or focusing on the future results in something tragic: missing out on life. It is happening right now – all around you. 

Focus on the present moment by drawing your attention to anything sensory, a particular task you are doing, a sound, taste, smell, sight, or feeling of touch you may not have realised you were experiencing that you can now tune into.


 A large part of learning how to tolerate distress involves having a strong foundation of yourself as a healthy capable person. You must believe in yourself first. Behind intense sadness, rage, and despair there is a caring, loving, and strong person who is capable of handling intense negative situations in a healthier way.

Using positive statements can help us develop a new attitude to ourselves and our situations. Use a statement that starts with “I” and use the present tense, such as “I am strong” or “I am a good and worthwhile person”.

It is helpful to hear encouraging words during times of intense emotional distress. Sometimes a supportive friend or partner is not around to provide us with the emotional support and comfort that we may desire. In these times, we must be capable of providing ourselves with this comfort. Coping thoughts consist of reminders of times when you’ve been strong in the past and words that give you strength. “I am strong enough to handle what happening to me right now”.