Throughout life we go through multiple stressful situations that can lead to a high level of anguish and anxiety. However, many times we do not have control over the circumstances, so that we have no choice but to exercise the last of our freedoms: the possibility of choosing the attitude with which we will face adversity.
When things go wrong and adversity knocks on the door or when problems, tensions and conflicts pile up, there is a key skill that will save us from burden, anguish and suffering: stress tolerance.
What is stress tolerance?
Stress tolerance is the ability to withstand pressures and strains without collapsing, maintaining an effective level of functioning and a minimum degree of anxiety in conditions that for most people would be stressful or overwhelming.
Tolerating stress does not mean being immune to adversity, it is a much more complex skill. On the one hand, it implies coping with the anguish and anxiety generated by stressful and adverse situations. Therefore, it is a capacity that allows us to endure negative or aversive emotional states, such as physical discomfort or psychological pressure, without collapsing.
On the other hand, stress tolerance also involves the behavioral act of resisting distressing internal states caused by some type of stressful or adverse event. That means we can maintain a baseline level of functioning that allows us to cope with stressful events adaptively, preventing those negative emotions from interfering too much with our performance.
Low stress tolerance, the risks it entails
In these times, when we have to go against the clock and obligations multiply, having a low stress tolerance can be very harmful because it will lead us to live in a state of tension and an almost permanent anguish.
A person with a low stress tolerance will be more likely to respond in a maladaptive way when circumstances put him on the ropes. He is likely to become extremely reactive and react impulsively or even aggressively, or may adopt avoidance strategies that end up being harmful.
In this sense, an investigation carried out at the Massachusetts General Hospital with 118 people with HIV found that those with a low stress tolerance tended to have more depressive symptoms, consumed more alcohol or drugs, or abandoned treatment within a period of six months after experiencing adverse life events.
Another research has found that people with a low stress tolerance are more impulsive and likely to develop bulimia, anxiety, depression, alcoholism or drug addiction.
The main problem is that people with a low stress tolerance often use experiential avoidance strategies to escape negative emotions or related aversive states. To try to escape these emotions, they display maladaptive behaviors that end up being harmful. For this reason, psychologists have concluded that a low stress tolerance is a risk marker while a high level of stress tolerance acts as a protective factor against different mental disorders.
Interestingly, stress tolerance not only influences our mental balance, it also permeates the way we perceive the world. Another study conducted at Tel Aviv University found that people with a low stress tolerance also had a greater tendency to fall into stereotypes. This is because they have trouble dealing with ambiguity, so they jump to conclusions in a hurry to feel on safer ground.
The 5 pillars on which stress tolerance is built
Stress-tolerant people share some characteristics that help them cope with stress and problems:
1. Anticipation of the experience. “The effect of what is not sought is overwhelming, since the unexpected is added to the weight of the disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen intensifies a person’s reaction. That is why we must make sure that nothing takes us by surprise. […] We must foresee all the possibilities and strengthen the spirit to face the things that may happen if we do not want to feel overwhelmed and dazed. […] Everyone faces with greater courage something for which they have been preparing for a long time. Those who are unprepared, on the other hand, will react badly to the smallest events,” wrote Seneca centuries ago. Stress-tolerant people are able to anticipate negative experiences and prepare psychologically for them.
2. Distract attention from negative emotion. When we are going through a bad time, it is normal for all our attention to focus on what it happens. However, in this way we can end up maximizing problems, immersing ourselves in the toxic loop that our mind creates and feeds on complaints. People with greater tolerance to stress, on the other hand, do not obsess over adverse circumstances or aversive feelings, they are able to redirect their attention. It is not that they forget about adversity, they simply know how to redistribute their attentional resources so as not to obsess over what happens to them and to be able to move on with a certain dose of normality.
3. Reassessment of the situation as acceptable. When we are mired in a stressful situation, we can fall into the mistake of thinking that everything is worse than it is. Frustration and anguish can become a glass through which we see the world in a distorted way. That can make us believe that everything is more unbearable or terrible. Stress-tolerant people do not enjoy adverse situations, but they are able to reduce its impact to an acceptable level that allows them to continue managing their day-to-day life and regain normalcy as much as possible. They can do this because they can see the big picture. They understand that the problem that worries them today will probably be inconsequential or passed in a month or a year. That allows them to view their concerns in a more realistic light.
4. Ability to regulate behavior. People with tolerance to stress are able to maintain an adequate degree of self-control that prevents negative emotions from influencing too much their behavior. Thus they maintain an adaptive level of functioning even in the middle of the storm. Their level of self-regulation prevents an emotional hijacking from taking place, so that they do not hit bottom emotionally, but even in the most difficult moments they are able to maintain a routine. Interestingly, it is often that routine that allows them to ease the load they are carrying on their shoulders to lessen the impact of adversity.
5. Positive inner dialogue. When things go wrong, it is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is easier to fall down the gorge of negative thoughts and worst omens. However, people with stress tolerance maintain a positive inner dialogue. They are not naive optimists. They know that things can be bad or are even aware that they can get worse, but they encourage each other and trust their abilities to cope with what happens. They say to themselves: “I can do it”, “I am a strong person”, “this will pass”, “I have gotten up before and I can do it again”. That positive self-talk gives them the strength they need to keep going until the storm subsides.
Leyro, T. M. et. Al. (2010) Distress Tolerance and Psychopathological Symptoms and Disorders: A Review of the Empirical Literature among Adults. Psychol Bull; 136(4): 576–600.
O’Cleirigh, C. et. Al. (2007) Does Distress Tolerance Moderate the Impact of Major Life Events on Psychosocial Variables and Behaviors Important in the Management of HIV? Behav Ther; 38(3): 314–323.