Distress tolerance, emotional regulation and re-parenting.


Jason Brien.

Distress tolerance and emotional regulation is the ability to manage actual or perceived emotional distress without making things worse. People who cannot regulate their emotions and who have low distress tolerance become easily overwhelmed by stressful situations and once they have become overwhelmed, they resort to unhealthy or even destructive ways of coping with the difficult emotions that arise. For those who haven’t already, have a read through my post/article “A look at two different ways of managing stress”. After you have read that post/article come back to this post/article.

If you are the type of person who would rip the stuck sliding screen door off of its rails and throw it into the garden in a fit of rage, you likely have low distress tolerance. You are probably hypersensitive to both stress and emotions which is causing your intense rage. The goal of distress tolerance and emotional regulation therefore is to decrease your sensitivity to certain emotions and thus decrease your maladaptive emotional responses to stressors/triggers/stress. Not eliminate. Decrease. The goal is never to eliminate emotions but to desensitise yourself to them and thus return them to their typical, baseline state were they no longer cause stress or distress or lead to maladaptive or unhealthy coping/behaviours.

Intense emotional responses can be triggered by internal factors (thoughts) or external factors (people, paces, broken sliding doors). For example, for internal factors, you might be thinking about a person that hurt you in the past and you then experience intense, atypical anger or hatred. Likewise, you might be thinking of a time when you hurt someone in the past and so you start feeling intense, atypical guilt or shame. For the external factors, you may experience intense, atypical anger or hatred when you encounter a stuck sliding screen door or when you have to work with someone who just irritates and annoys the hell out of you.

For a lot of people with low distress tolerance and poor emotional regulation skills, their default setting is to run away and avoid stressful situations and thus avoid having to feel the intense emotions or they ‘allow’ their emotions to flood them causing them to lash out in anger or violence. For others their default setting might be to self-medicate and numb their intense emotions using drugs or alcohol or they might distort reality and engage in narcissistic defences (rather than feeling guilt or shame they adopt a “I don’t give a F about you” mentality). Either way they are not doing their emotional responses any favours.

You cannot become desensitised to emotions if you continually avoid them, block them out, repress them or if you continually give them too much power by unleashing them unrestrained. Look at it this way. Babies and young children become extremely happy and excited over the simplest of things. That’s because they are still hypersensitive to emotions like happiness for example. Babies and children will struggle to sleep or become silly and annoying when they become overly happy and overly overexcited and thus a healthy caregiver will teach them soothing techniques like quiet time, a dummy, a bottle of milk, nap time, etc which teaches them to become sensitised to happiness emotion.

A healthy caregiver teaches the baby or young child to neither avoid/escape the happiness emotion nor become overwhelmed by it. The healthy caregiver teaches the baby or infant to come to terms with the emotion uninterrupted until it no longer causes stress or distress. That is, the healthy caregiver teaches both distress tolerance and emotional regulation. Once the baby or child has become desensitised to the happiness emotion (returned to baseline happiness), they are re-entered into the playgroup, activity, etc. The same applies for a range of emotions; anger (time away, discipline, etc), sadness (comfort, validation, etc) or guilt and shame (“this is how you correct your wrong”, “this is how to apologise”, etc).

This is where re-parenting comes in. You have to take control and become the parent to yourself if you wish to improve your distress tolerance and reduce your hypersensitivity to emotions. You can do this in a variety of ways. You can engage in problem and emotion focused coping. These two coping styles are context specific as discussed in the post/article “A look at two different ways of managing stress”. Sometimes its best to sort out a solution and other times when solutions cannot be immediately found, it is best to focus on your emotional responses. Or you might need to balance both equally. If you are unemployed for example, which is causing you stress and distress, problem focused coping would keep you out looking for work and emotion focused coping will keep you from becoming depressed when you don’t receive job offers.

Practicing cognitive reframing and challenging negative thoughts can also help to improve your distress tolerance and lower your emotional sensitivity. Again, this is context specific. Not all thoughts are easily modified or reframed. In these instances, you might need to practice radical acceptance. Radical acceptance involves just accepting things as they are and letting go of atypical feelings of regret, anger, or bitterness. It’s a process of trial and error to see which method works for you the same as how a healthy caregiver tried different methods until they learnt which soothing methods worked for the baby or child.

It is also a good idea to learn how to identify emotions correctly. Emotions like anger, hatred or shame for example are umbrella emotions. They are often the scapegoat for other emotions like guilt, helplessness, worthlessness, etc. People who are hypersensitive to anger, may only be hypersensitive because they are misidentifying their true emotions. Once they begin to untangle all of the underlying emotions, their anger returns to its typical state. So, the anger provoking the response to the sliding screen door may in fact be the emotion of embarrassment. Or helplessness. If they identified their emotion as helplessness, they might not fly off into a fit of rage and instead they might go and ask someone to help them fix the door.

Resources.

https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/-/media/CCI/Consumer-Modules/Facing-Your-Feelings/Facing-Your-Feelings---04---Tolerating-Distress.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3krBenK7fASGWHa1zrugA6XAsQtCY3_xTaoBtFD7nFpGK-AMACYQSwMwQ

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2891552/#:~:text=Scholars%20have%20conceptualized%20a%20wide,heterogeneity%20across%20areas%20of%20research.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6130202/

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00072/full