How To Better Tolerate Emotional Pain


I have had a month of high stress and decreased tolerance to emotional discomfort. It happens. Especially when a lot of what stresses you out is outside of your control. There is a crisis brewing and I need to make sure my emotions are in check. A crisis is a highly emotionally charged situation where a solution is required yet it’s not always available.

Here are some ways in which you can make a crisis worse:

Yelling at someone

Using drugs or alcohol


Retail therapy using money you don’t have

Giving up on solving the crisis all together

Let’s talk about this last one for a moment. What happens when a solution is not possible at the moment? What happens when you are faced with something you can not control?

What happens is a phenomenon known as learned helplessness – when you feel you are not in control of your situation you will give up and accept it, no matter how painful. The idea that we would rather stay in a painful situation then make efforts to change it, is completely illogical. But then again, so is gambling.

So what CAN you do?

First, try to look at your situation from a fresh prospective. Even if you can’t control your situation, you can ALWAYS find something you can control. You can control how you view the problem, how you feel about it and what you choose to do. Even the absence of doing is a decision. You have choices.

If nothing else, choose to learn how to increase your distress tolerance – ability to tolerate emotional pain. 

Most people struggle in life not because they are stupid, or bad, or lazy. Most people suffer because they are literally incapable of tolerating distress. When emotional pain hits, they just can’t take it! I would even go so far as to say, this is a national epidemic. This is not for lack of trying. In fact, people will tell me they tolerate distress just fine. However the short-term avoidance or  numbing attempts, have significant, negative, long-term effects. We work very hard to avoid distress. When it naturally hits, we do all we can to numb it with fixes that range from food, bad company, drugs and alcohol, gambling, sex, shopping, etc. These behaviors get us in more trouble. The key to distress tolerance is accepting suffering as part of the human experience without judgment and with a true understanding of the transient nature of emotional states. Pain, just like joy is fleeting. It’s like a wave that you can ride out, knowing you will survive it. You will be in one piece and the world will too. You will not go crazy or die. You will survive.

Distress tolerance is a skill or a toolbox of skills rather. You can learn these skills and perfect them with practice. Here are some of the components:

1. Distractions


Talk to someone who isn’t in crisis

Engage in your favorite hobby

Watch a movie

Go to a park

Plant flowers

Help someone less fortunate then you

Bake cookies

Listen to someone else’s problems


Compare down “it could be worse”

Compare your situation to a time in the past you were in crisis and you got through it

Engage in the opposite emotion: If angry, watch a comedy. If sad, listen to upbeat music. If scared, watch someone daring

Imagine putting your problem on a shelf or in a safe

Sing song lyric to a song you don’t quite remember

Do the time tables to a number you have to calculate

Decide what profession everyone on the bus does

2. Self-Soothing with the five senses: Vision, Sound, Smell, Touch, Taste

Imagine decorating your next home

Listen to soothing music

Light a scented candle

Take a lush bubble bath

Cook your favorite childhood comfort food

3. IMPROVE the moment: Imagery, Meaning, Prayer, Relaxation, One thing at a time, Vacation, Encouragement

Imagine a place you feel happy, safe or relaxed like the beach, your favorite hike, the mountain

What can this mean? “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” “This too shall pass”

Connect with your religion or spiritual traditions

Go for a walk, go to a yoga or meditation class

Don’t worry about the future, don’t obsess on the past, focus on what’s happening RIGHT NOW

Take a break, turn your phone off, spend time alone

Be your own cheerleader “I can do it” “I have been through worse”

4. Pros and Cons

I’m making it worse by ________________

I’m tolerating distress by _________________

And of course, write on your blog 🙂

Don’t you feel better already?

More on Emotion Regulation

As I mentioned previously, emotion regulation is a skill. To learn it you may need the help of a therapist. Once you learn this stuff, you will be able to be your own therapist, so to speak. Therapy would typically focus on:

  1. Self-monitoring: keeping daily diary cards of emotions and what event or thought provoked them as well as recording the impulse to react to that emotion with a particular behavior. There is no changing to be done here. You’d simply write things down as you notice them, without judging them. All that is required is acceptance and pen and paper.
  2. Skill training: focusing on breaking the event =>emotion =>reaction vicious cycle. Part of inability to regulate emotions lies in automatically reacting to them with a maladaptive behavior. For instance, for people who drink, an argument with the boss=anger=drinking. This happens without thinking. The goal here would be to break this chain.
  3. Exposure: this means to feel what you feel when you feel it. Soak it all up and sit with it without reacting. Yes, negative emotions are not pleasant but they are not the enemy here. The problem lies in low tolerance to negative emotions which leads to avoiding them by using other unhealthy distractions. Emotions do not last forever, they are just temporary states and riding them out helps you realize nothing extraordinary happened: you’re in one piece and the world is too.
  4. Behavioral activation: this means making actual changes. Trying new behaviors to replace the old ones. Argument with the boss may still equal anger but your reaction to it is no longer drinking. You want to think of a new behavior that is easy and somewhat pleasant to you. Because this is individual to you, it’s hard to come up with a magic formula.
  5. Cognitive restructuring: this entails breaking down irrational thoughts and challenging them with facts as if you and they were in an actual debate. Remember thoughts are not truth, they change as we change. Thoughts are not facts. And some thoughts are more rational than others. If you can change your thinking, you can change the way you feel and then there is nothing stopping you.

Here also some tips with Exposure (as this is very hard usually). The key to having a successful exposure is to master Core Mindfulness which entails several components:

1-Observe (sit in a quiet room with no distractions and as you settle into your breathing just notice what feelings and thought are coming up for you without reacting)

2-Describe (words are powerful, name your feelings, know the difference between angry and resentful, develop an emotional vocabulary)

3-Participate (this refers to developing a “wise mind” – the wise you, the observant you, the you who knows better, the you who occasionally talks to himself)

4-Be non-judgmental (observe and accept your feelings and thoughts without judging them, no negative self-talk, stop the parent in your brain telling you how bad you’ve been)

5-Be one-mindful (be in the present, your mind will try to propel you forward or keep you in the past, but the future doesn’t exist and the past is already gone, all you have is right now)

To be or not to be

Ambivalence: should I stay or should I go, having “cold feet”, sitting on a fence, having a love and hate relationship with someone, wanting to change but also wanting to stay the same. It is also known as Approach-Avoidance: conflicts occur when one goal contains both positive and negative characteristics. That is, an individual fears something that he desires. When the goal is far away, both positive and negative feelings about the goal are less strong; however, as he approaches the goal, a person’s feelings about the negative characteristics arise, and he backs down, avoiding getting too close to achieving the goal. Then, as the goal is further away, he approaches again, only to have the same feelings of avoidance arise again, and he backs off, which decreases the internal conflict. This is for instance someone who is afraid of intimacy but desperate for it. Many times the conflict is between wanting something we shouldn’t have. Which is pretty interesting since the mere fact that we shouldn’t have it makes us want it even more.
Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Where there is no conflict or ambivalence there is no change to be made. No one likes change but the truth is it is inevitable.
Someone who is addicted to something or someone, is in a constant state of ambivalence between wanting and not wanting, action and inaction, doing and trying to undo, forever stuck between ecstasy and guilt, control and loss of control, happiness and misery, hunger and fulfillment. Some people continue to be in this state even after they stop “using” or stop engaging in addictive behaviors. Your mind is the last one to jump on board with what you are trying to do. Change involves reprogramming your brain and learning to solve the conflict within you.

Doing the stress dance

I took a survey today on my current stress level. With a score of 35, I’m at a moderate level which is understandable given the changes in my life and the time of the year (the holidays are always stressful). Of course this has to be the reason why Insomnia has been visiting me every night at bed time and I feel like I was run over by a train (possibly getting sick)
This is my “All stress left behind” campaign:
1. Get rid of all those Thanksgiving leftovers. No more gobbling up.
2. Reduce my caffeine intake and allow my body to wake up naturally
3. Stock up on really yummy and healthy breakfast
4. Take a bubble bath
5. Say a prayer
6. Sing in the car
7. Run to loud and fast techno music
8. Watch the Victoria Secret fashion show
9. Take some E (and calcium and D)
10. Make hydration a priority
11. Finish something (like the two books I started a month ago)
12. Get organized without demanding perfection
13. Do yard work
14. Sit in silence
Wish me luck!

Got yoga?

Last night I went to my first class of Ashtanga yoga, which consists of 6 series of poses that you memorize and practice in a breath-guided flow, at your own pace. Apparently most people practice just the primary series. Second and third are advanced and mostly for instructors…and the other three? Well, a wise man once said that after you have completed the third series, if you have any Ego left you can pursue the rest. Lesson: Ashtanga is an Ego killer, which officially makes it my new favorite thing. OK, great, good for you Elvi, but what does this have to do with driving, you might ask. Well, it turns out everything has to do with everything. And just as driving is much like life, Ashtanga yoga is also a lot like driving…and life.
For one, they are both new and scary to me. Except that the mat is much kinder than the road. But you are on your own. You can’t really have a teacher. You have an instructor. Just like in driving school. To guide you. But ultimately you have to teach yourself. Whether he is guiding you through Parivrta Parsvakonasana – cross bend over knee (which by the way hurts like hell), or guiding you through rush hour on Independence boulevard (which can be similarly hellacious), you are the one telling your body and mind to do what needs to be done. In the moment. You trust your instructor but ultimately you have to trust yourself. Secondly, Ashtanga is messy, you don’t really know what you’re doing. You have to rely on your memory and the present moment at the same time. You make mistakes and you laugh it off. You mess up the sequence but eventually you find that the world is still in one piece. And so are you.
You look over to your neighbor and realize they are going much faster but you learn that you don’t have to.
Thirdly, you need to practice. Practice. Practice. And eventually, you don’t really have to think about it, you just do it. And that’s when the practice becomes meditation. And that is ultimately what I want to accomplish in both driving and yoga. You know, get in the zone. Be in the zone. Which is very different from zoning out. Because, meditation is a lot more like falling awake.
You should have seen me. Me trying to do the half lotus forward fold was as funny as me getting on the oncoming turning lane, (wrong side honey!). Wish me luck.
In Ashtanga you finish your series with a chant. But I think it is perfect to start any driving excursions. It translates:

May prosperity be glorified –
may rulers, (administrators) rule the world with law and justice
may divinity and erudition be protected
May all beings be happy and prosperous.