Frustration Tolerance

Do you find yourself being constantly stressed about certain issues more than necessary?Do you find it difficult to stick to unstimulating and long-term tasks? Do you somewhat have a low threshold of pain? We all want life to be organised according to our preferences. Unfortunately, we often go beyond just wanting – we believe that things must be our way. This reflects a human tendency called ‘low frustration-tolerance’.

So what exactly is low frustration tolerance? It arises from catastrophising about discomfort (including the discomfort of negative emotions), with an internal demand that it be avoided. Low frustration-tolerance arises from demands that things be as we want. People with low frustration tolerance usually have thoughts like “the world owes me contentment and happiness”, “Things should be as I want them to be, and I can’t stand it when they are not” and “Other people should not do things that frustrate me.”

The problems that arise with low frustration tolerance are, anxiety that results when people believe that they should or must get what they want (and not what they don’t want), and that it is awful and unbearable (rather than merely inconvenient or disadvantageous) when things don’t happen as they ‘must’. Short-range enjoyment, a common human tendency, is the seeking of immediate pleasure or avoidance of pain, at the cost of long-term stress. Examples include: alcohol, drug and food abuse; watching television at the expense of exercising or overspending to avoid feeling deprived. Low frustration-tolerance is a key factor in the development of addictions. To resist the impulse of the moment and go without is ‘too frustrating’. It seems easier to give in to the urge to misuse alcohol, take drugs, gamble, or exercise obsessively. Low frustration-tolerance may cause you to become distressed over small hindrances and setbacks, over concerned with unfairness, and prone to make comparisons between your own and others’ circumstances. Negativity tends to alienate others, with the loss of their support. Being angry when someone does something you dislike, or fails to give you what you want.

Virtually all children have low frustration tolerance. During the learning process, they develop the ability to face situations where they don’t always get what they want, whether it’s wanting to play with another child, wanting their mothers to buy them candy, or whether their ice cream has fallen and their parent doesn’t want to buy them another. However, there are some people who never fully understand that their desires won’t always be met. They can’t accept that their preferences will be interrupted by their surroundings. They don’t take the desires of others into account. And they struggle to deal with uncontrollable setbacks.

Frustration and stress during performing a well-trained perceptual task do not impair the level of accuracy, but this happens at a cost of increased brain activation, encompassing the basal ganglia together with the insula and somatosensory cortices. Temperamental differences play a role in coping with different situation, as subjects with low tolerance for arousal show increase activation of structures involved in processing the subjective effects of stress.

Frustration tolerance is a learned behaviour that can be strengthened with mindful attention, time, and patience. Know when you are engaging in low frustration tolerance behaviour. Keep a log of such behaviour for several weeks or longer. Watch for things like overusing drugs or alcohol, compulsive gambling, shopping, exercising, or bingeing on food, losing your temper. The technique of exposure is an important way to increase your tolerance. Make a list of things to which you typically overreact – situations, events, risks and so on. Commit yourself to face at least one of these each day. Instead of trying to get away from the frustration as you normally would, stay with the frustration until it diminishes of its own accord. Another useful technique is rational self-analysis. So next time analyse your frustration – while you are feeling it.

Authorship: Urja Mehta

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