Part of what makes humanity so great is our ability to feel. Humans need to feel a variety of emotions, both subjectively pleasant and unpleasant, to survive. Fear, grief, and anger are just as important to survival as happiness, love, and excitement.

Despite their importance, some people have a difficult time dealing with the feelings on the unpleasant end of the spectrum. The inability to fully experience unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions, and the desperate need to escape from those emotions, is called distress intolerance.


Distress intolerance develops through a combination of biological and environmental factors. Some people, like those classified as highly sensitive, are simply born with a higher sensitivity to all emotions. Others develop distress intolerance through environmental feedback, like punishment for experiencing an emotion that society labels as negative, such as having an angry outburst or crying when they felt sadness.

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Highly Sensitive People

A highly sensitive person is someone who is biologically more sensitive to internal stimuli, like emotions, and external stimuli, like things in the environment that can be experienced by one of the five senses. Research suggests that highly sensitive people experience emotions more intensely and process them on a deeper level than those that are not highly sensitive, which could lead to distress intolerance.

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Unpleasant Emotions

No one likes to experience unpleasant emotions, least of all those individuals with distress intolerance. Stereotypically negative emotions fall into three categories: mad, sad, and scared. The problem is not the emotions themselves but rather a person's belief that an emotion is bad or wrong. This belief can lead to distress intolerance.

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Warning Signs

Ignored or repressed emotions can have physical effects as well as psychological. A person usually experiences warning signs prior to the episode of distress intolerance. These warning signs can be tension, anxiety, restlessness, fidgeting, increased heart rate, stomach problems, sweating, bouts of crying, and feelings of frustration.

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Escape Methods

Distress intolerance is accompanied by the desperate need to escape the feelings or situation that causes the distress. People may avoid anything that can bring up a distressing emotion, including places and people, or they distract themselves to avoid awareness of the distressing feeling or situation. For comfort, people experiencing distress intolerance may excessively seek reassurance. Numbing and withdrawal are other common escape methods. Dangerous methods, including self-harm or excessive scratching, may also provide an escape from the negative emotions.

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Mental Health

Healthy amounts of distress intolerance, just like experiencing unpleasant emotions, is vital to survival. Unhealthy amounts of distress intolerance, on the other hand, can negatively impact mental and physical health. They can increase a person's risk of developing anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and dependence on drugs and alcohol.

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Healthy vs. Unhealthy

Distress intolerance exists on a continuum from extremely intolerant of distress all the way to extremely tolerant. Being too intolerant of distress can lead to the development of psychological disorders, but being too tolerant of distress can be just as damaging because it can lead people to stay in extremely unpleasant circumstances, including abusive relationships. Healthy distress intolerance, instead of existing in the extremes, exists in the middle of the continuum.

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One way to manage unhealthy distress intolerance is by simply accepting the unpleasant emotion. The first instinct when something unpleasant arises is to fight it, but this will only strengthen distress intolerance. Let the emotions be, even if they are unpleasant. Mindfulness meditation teaches people to observe the unpleasant emotion without labeling it as wrong or bad until it is processed.

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Another way to manage distress intolerance is by improvement. Look at the situation and see if the unpleasant feelings can be improved with activating or soothing activities. Activating activities involve movement like exercising to improve mood. Soothing activities involve relaxing things like having your favorite meal or listening to music.

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In some cases, distress intolerance requires clinical intervention. Since the issue comes from the belief that certain feelings are bad or wrong, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people change the belief that leads to the intolerance. Self-help books are also widely available and full of advice to help people experience and accept their emotions and find healthy management techniques.

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