• jess

Distress Intolerance and Perseverant Thinking

You know, having this handicapable pup is definitely teaching me a lot. I'm not going to lie and say that everyday is a fucking walk in the park. He can't even walk, so that makes the metaphor a lot more difficult, for starters.


Let me be clear, taking care of a fairly-large puppy who isn't able to stand, sit, eat, drink, or essentially do anything on his own has been a real learning experience for me. It is akin to mothering a newborn, whether you believe it or not. Diapers, pop-up playpens, and regularly getting peed on, included. And no, I wouldn’t say I ever expected to be in that position.


Practically, I'm trying to figure out how to create a life for this dog and help him recover from his congenital immobility disorder.


Emotionally, well, motherfucker, there are a lot of frustrating and heart-wrenching days that almost get the best of me. I sometimes find myself overstimulated, ruminating, or turning to my escapist behaviors - like snacking - to distract from the discomfort. Combined with the mild sleep deprivation, I'm not always in my emotional center.


Emotionally, well, motherfucker, there are a lot of frustrating and heart-wrenching days that almost get the best of me. I sometimes find myself overstimulated, ruminating, or turning to my escapist behaviors - like snacking - to distract from the discomfort. Combined with the mild sleep deprivation, I'm not always in my emotional center.

I think it’s probably pretty easy to understand how challenging it might be to deal with puppy energy and puppy shortcomings (like potty training), contained in the shell of a malfunctioning body that seems determined to kill itself. I essentially have to do everything for him. Meanwhile he’s constantly trying to slam his face into hard objects or propelling his stiffened body towards immediate danger.


With a normal puppy, pee puddles are frustrating. With a wheelie dog, every failed trip outside is another straw piled onto the camel’s back of long, hard, often futile efforts. Carrying his 50lb body around in the heat is enough of a challenge. The effort, the exhaustion, the sense of caring for him more than he cares for his own basic needs… over time, the stress piles up.


It makes sense that I get anxious and overwhelmed when all the daily intricacies are stacking up on my belabored mind. If I step back, I can reasonably understand that there are challenges from every direction causing me duress - from taking care of his basic needs to high level physical therapy. There are so many things that just have to be ironed out with time and mutual learning... AKA struggle and strife.


But it is worth it.


Still, there are days when I wonder why I'm so deeply bothered by the mishaps and miscommunications that come with establishing a handicapped routine. Why small, rectifiable issues can drum up a massive thunderstorm in my head. Why I regularly feel like a fucking failure when the world definitely isn’t ending.


Still, there are days when I wonder why I'm so deeply bothered by the mishaps and miscommunications that come with establishing a handicapped routine. Why small, rectifiable issues can drum up a massive thunderstorm in my head. Why I regularly feel like a fucking failure when the world definitely isn’t ending.

Logically, I can see the myriad complications clearly and realize that I need to distance myself from them. Emotionally, though, I’m all befuddled.


Why can a bad morning with a pee-failure put me in a persistently upset mood for the rest of the day? How is it that his refusal to eat his food causes me so much emotional distress for hours? What is happening when he wants to flop all over near hard, dangerous objects and I’m ready to lose my fucking mind with swelling emotional responses?


The longer this experiment goes on, the more aware I’ve become that it’s some function of deep internalization.


I see that in my super critical brain, his attempts and failures are interpreted to mean something about my life - as much as his. My self-worth is called into question around every corner. My imposter syndrome is chomping at the bit. My self-doubts are a plenty.


I see that in my super critical brain, his attempts and failures are interpreted to mean something about my life - as much as his. My self-worth is called into question around every corner. My imposter syndrome is chomping at the bit. My self-doubts are a plenty.

And I’m realizing that there’s a key component of mental health and emotional regulation thrown in there, because why wouldn't there be?


Distress Intolerance is playing a major role in my overwhelmed responses. This overstimulated brain response is underlying the entire emotional issue and making Archie's activities every moment of the day into personal problems, rather than seeing them realistically as learning opportunities.


So… Why?


What’s up with Distress Intolerance, anyways? What is it? Is it even a real thing? Why is it happening? How can we break the immediate negative reaction we have to external stimuli? Plus, and maybe most important, how can we put an end to the avoidant behaviors that follow our system arousal?

What’s up with Distress Intolerance, anyways? What is it? Is it even a real thing? Why is it happening to me? How can I break the immediate negative reaction I have to external stimuli? Plus, and maybe most important, how can we put an end to the avoidant behaviors that follow our system arousal?




What is distress intolerance?


Distress intolerance is defined as the perceived inability to withstand and manage upsetting emotional and physical internal experiences. It is associated with a number of mental disorders, including anxiety, depression, obsession, self-harm, and substance abuse… and therefore it is either tangentially or directly related to Trauma.


Directly, there is evidence that following a traumatic event, sufferers experience wide-reaching emotional and distress avoidance. Individuals are motivated to escape from the situations and stimuli that create strong emotional reactions or memory-related negative symptoms.


Avoidance, one of the hallmarks of C-PTSD, is the major function of distress intolerance; this is yet another example of the role avoidance (or aversion to stimuli that result in negative consequences) plays in PTSD.


Avoidance, one of the hallmarks of C-PTSD, is the major function of distress intolerance; this is yet another example of the role avoidance (or aversion to stimuli that result in negative consequences) plays in PTSD.

Indirectly, Trauma warriors are characteristically plagued with anxious and depressive disorders in response to their earlier experiences. As mentioned above, Distress Intolerance is strongly correlated with both conditions.


I propose that distress intolerance is related to anxiety and depression responses as both a cause and an effect - a cyclical pattern of stimulus, aversion, and attempted escape that often doubles back onto itself to create additional aversive stimuli.


Encountering anxiety-inducing stimuli dials up the victim’s learned distress intolerance responses, which function to subvert attention from the anxiety-inducing stimuli to reduce the emotionally heightened state.


Unfortunately, this attempt at distress avoidance is often conducted through means of maladaptive coping strategies that serve to strengthen anxiety with varying degrees of delay. Maybe you'll feel better in the short term, but you'll pay for it dearly tomorrow when anxiety reaches new heights. Let the avoidance begin again! A vicious cycle is created.


Unfortunately, this attempt at distress avoidance is often conducted through means of maladaptive coping strategies that serve to strengthen anxiety with varying degrees of delay. Maybe you'll feel better in the short term, but you'll pay for it dearly tomorrow when anxiety reaches new heights. Let the avoidance begin again! A vicious cycle is created.

Alright, so in less academic terms… what IS Distress Intolerance?


I can imagine it most vividly when I’m in an already-heightened state of tension, and it just takes the goddamn wind blowing the wrong way for me to have a total shutdown.


You know that feeling when you’re running late, every little thing is going wrong with your day, and something completely inert finally pushes you over the fucking edge? Your phone won’t charge, someone cuts you off in traffic, or a phone call keeps getting dropped? Your boss emails you at an inopportune moment, your mom texts you some dumb bullshit, or someone is smacking their gum in the office? You kids won't stop crying, your husband is making that fucking sound again, or the dog will not quit barking outside?


And you just… Cannot. Deal. This is it; the moment when you finally implode. Call the producers of Snapped, because someone is about to get strangled.


You probably try to “escape” from the stimuli, fleeing to a different location, shutting down, or having an aggressive outburst? You leave the room, you throw your phone, you collapse into yourself and start to tear up? You punch the dashboard, you screech like a banshee, you honestly consider banging your head against a wall?


You probably try to “escape” from the stimuli, fleeing to a different location, shutting down, or having an aggressive outburst? You leave the room, you throw your phone, you collapse into yourself and start to tear up? You punch the dashboard, you screech like a banshee, you honestly consider banging your head against a wall?

A mini-adult temper tantrum takes place, which usually resolves itself only after taking some deep breaths, distancing yourself (dissociating) from the situation, or delving into escapist behaviors to distract from the discomfort?


This is Distress Intolerance.


This is your brain on overload.




Is it “real”?


So… let me be honest and tell you that when I first heard about “distress intolerance,” I scoffed and called it some stupid bullshit.


To be fair, it was my abusive ex telling me that the reason why he chased me around the house, harassed me with dozens of phone calls when I asked for space, and generally had no respect for my boundaries was this “distress intolerance” thing he just learned about after years of insisting that I was the only party with even the slightest semblance of mental unhealth.


So, yeah, at the time I felt like he was making excuses and throwing around a pretty flimsy psychology term that essentially amounted to “I can’t handle my shit,” without taking any real accountability for his actions or investigating the larger underlying problems. I admit it.


It is with great foot-in-mouth-shoving that I write this article now, examining the ways that Distress Intolerance has played a role in my life - whether I thought it was legitimate or not.


The fact is, everyone has a threshold for stimulus and internal discomfort - traumatized or otherwise. We can remain calm to a certain point, taking blows left and right without letting them get the best of us until that final punch overthrows our internal pain tolerance... at which time we are going to try to avoid or terminate the aversive stimuli.


The fact is, everyone has a threshold for stimulus and internal discomfort - traumatized or otherwise. We can remain calm to a certain point, taking blows left and right without letting them get the best of us until that final punch overthrows our internal pain tolerance... at which time we are going to try to avoid or terminate the aversive stimuli.

It’s just biology. Mechanisms of evolution. Internal defense systems and species survival at play. Like always, it comes back around to species survival and adaptive responses. Maybe that Biology degree wasn't so worthless after all.


The phenomenon of distress intolerance is - as I expressed with my prior assertion that my ex was turning a universal human experience into a clinical explanation for being a dickhead - pretty common sense.


Everyone has a breaking point. Duh.


The issue is, for some of us that breaking point is a short jog from “doing fine” to “actually losing my fucking mind.”


Furthermore, we Traumatized Motherfuckers have many maladaptive coping tendencies which result in more deleterious behaviors than the original unpleasantry we were trying to avoid in the first place. It's a cruel joke.


Furthermore, we Traumatized Motherfuckers have many maladaptive coping tendencies which result in more deleterious behaviors than the original unpleasantry we were trying to avoid in the first place. It's a cruel joke.

In this way, distress intolerance serves to shoot us in our own goddamn foot as we trade avoidance of one unpleasant stimuli for a far more serious and longer lasting option. i.e. drinking, drug use, eating, starving, self-harming, malfunctional avoidance, agoraphobia, superstitious behavior, isolation, etc, etc, etc. Name your poison.


We all know, Traumatized Motherfuckers don’t need any help with their misguided coping strategies that stretch on for lifetimes. We're pretty damn good at ruining everything for ourselves in futile attempts to cohabitate with mental challenges.


This is why distress intolerance seems like a worthwhile topic to address in the battle against living lives determined by C-PTSD.




Why is it happening?


Well, I’ve already described the function of distress intolerance to a fairly common-sense extent.


We want to avoid negative sensations that feel dangerous or negatively consequential in our inner landscape. We have emotional responses in the face of perceived threats to our wellbeing and, therefore, we turn to avoidant behaviors that we’ve previously learned to comfort ourselves with.


But guess what. It goes deeper than that. Let’s drive the point home.


I found this cool little paper about the connection between distress intolerance, the “threat” of negative emotions, and the function of perseverant thinking which leads to internalization. And motherfuckers, the easy-to-understand graphic that researchers from Florida State University have created speaks more to my experience on this planet than most other simple flow-charts ever have.


Researchers at FSU showed that there is more than avoidance at play. There is also self-evaluative behavior taking place, with a side of obsession and a dessert pairing of long-lasting systemic activation.

Researchers at FSU showed that there is more than avoidance at play. There is also self-evaluative behavior taking place, with a side of obsession and a dessert pairing of long-lasting systemic activation.


Why can an external, fleeting, otherwise innocuous event cause me long-term mental duress and spawn long-lasting detrimental coping behaviors? Because I don’t just try to avoid the emotions that are flooding my inner world. I internalize the event and the negative emotions to mean something about me. Then I try to swallow all those self-hating sentiments with a side of reignited mental anguish in the form of shame, anxiety, obsession, and depression. You know, the most painful emotional states that really latch on and self-perpetuate.


Why can an external, fleeting, otherwise innocuous event cause me long-term mental duress and spawn long-lasting detrimental coping behaviors? Because I don’t just try to avoid the emotions that are flooding my inner world. I internalize the event and the negative emotions to mean something about me. Then I try to swallow all those self-hating sentiments with a side of reignited mental anguish in the form of shame, anxiety, obsession, and depression. You know, the most painful emotional states that really latch on and self-perpetuate.

I ruminate. I have obsessive thinking. I dive head-first into uncomfortable feelings by self-blame and ever-decreasing self-worth. I don’t need any help with those issues - they already dominate my inner experience, regardless of what’s happening outside this body.


And as a result, I shut myself off from the world, I explode at my loved ones, I paint a scowl on my face, I overwork myself, I eat my feelings’ weight in peanut butter. As a result, I feel even worse! Now I have more ammo to internalize and shame to impart on myself.


In essence, I do everything I can to try to avoid the negative thoughts and feelings about myself that come from trying to avoid a lesser-negative event outside of myself


In essence, I do everything I can to try to avoid the negative thoughts and feelings about myself that come from trying to avoid a lesser-negative event outside of myself

Cool. Makes no fucking sense when you think of it that way. Thanks trauma!


Trauma survivors already have a tendency to ruminate - we have obsessive, intrusive thoughts that spin around like a Walkman on repeat. Why wouldn’t this persistent thinking problem have a role to play in Distress Intolerance, avoidance, and low self-evaluation? Why wouldn’t we learn to effectively punish ourselves long-term for acute, momentary events? Hell, isn’t that what our Trauma Brain does day after day, years after our traumatic experiences and instances of social shortcomings?


Trauma survivors already have a tendency to ruminate - we have obsessive, intrusive thoughts that spin around like a Walkman on repeat. Why wouldn’t this persistent thinking problem have a role to play in Distress Intolerance, avoidance, and low self-evaluation? Why wouldn’t we learn to effectively punish ourselves long-term for acute, momentary events? Hell, isn’t that what our Trauma Brain does day after day, years after our traumatic experiences and instances of social shortcomings?

I know, if there's one thing MY brain does well, it's to hold onto negative thoughts - primarily those that I can use to punish myself.


As I described before in the Shame entry, one of the common methods for coping with shame is to internalize the issue and try to "correct" through self-punishment to reduce the likelihood of repeating the mistake in the future. I spent a decade under the influence of self-brutalization with some misguided intention of righting wrongs... if I just spent enough nights lying awake and telling myself I was an asshole it would get better.


Sound familiar?


We're great at running in circles around our own perceptions of failure, drumming up comparisons of how "normal" people "always" act, and turning external events into evidence of our own inability to function "right." If the world won't spank me for my perceived shortcomings, I'll get the whip out myself.


Always focused on the past. Always catastrophizing the future. Always drawing negative conclusions about how we fit into all of it.


But... what can be done? How can we break these patterns before they bowl us over?




What can I do in the moment?


You know… none of this research of mine does any good if there aren’t practical, functional ways to put it to use. So here’s what I’ve been figuring out with my own distress intolerance management in regards to this wheeliepup adventure.


1. Fucking BREATHE


Admittedly, sometimes I think that trite advice is the same as bad or ineffective advice - just because we’ve heard it SO often that I think we build up resistance to actually doing it. Too fucking bad. BREATHE. Close your eyes, note your physical landscape, and take a few deep ones. Re-evaluate your physical experience. Repeat if you’re still ready to fucking choke someone or yourself.


2. Distance yourself physically


When it’s all too much, when your system is lighting up like a Christmas tree, when the amount of stimulation flooding your senses is drowning you - just get out of there for a few seconds. Literally, walk away, pace in a circle, stare at the sky, lay down, feel your feet. Give yourself a moment to hit the reset button, free of the stimulation that’s been pouring into your overwhelmed brain.


3. Distance yourself mentally


Take note of the stimulation and analyze it critically - what is it? Is it directly connected to you? Does it really have anything to do with you? Does it say anything about your character? Your worth as a living organism? Is your life permanently changed depending on the outcome of this situation? Nah, probably not. Reason with yourself that this is outside of you - it’s just an event taking place at an inopportune time causing unfavorable effects as your sensory organs are overcome with energy. The rest of it? It’s your trauma brain, taking things too seriously.


4. Think of it on a continuing timeline


You know what always calms me right down? The question, “Is this worth ruining my day over?” Because 99.9% of the time, the answer is, “fuck no.” You probably aren’t going to remember that this happened in a week, let alone in 20 years. With that in mind, is it worth all the energy and attention you’re giving it? Are your large emotions rationally founded? Or… do you have waaay better things to be this riled up about, if you had to choose where to spend your piss and vinegar? Think of this event as it really is - a blip on the continuum of your life. Take a deep breath and keep living.


5. Remind yourself of the purpose


When you’re at your breaking point, ready to end it all… it might be helpful to remind yourself of the point of whatever is pissing you right off. Is your boss driving you up the fucking wall? Well, the purpose of putting up with their poor boundaries is making a good paycheck. Is your child really pushing you over the edge today? Well, you really love them when you are more capable of big-picture thinking. Is this dog trying to kill me with his refusal to just fucking eat his food? Well, I’m trying to help him learn to “dog” right so he can live a real life. There’s a reason, so buck up, champ! It’s worth it! (hopefully)




How can I 'turn off' the avoidant behaviors that I use to cope?


“How can I keep my hands from shoveling food into my face when I really want to shove my face into a wall?” - the story of my life!


Once you’re triggered into a pattern of emotional avoidance, well, it really sucks trying to flip that switch back to adaptive behaving instead of comforting coping. How do you break from the well-worn path after years of engaging the same detrimental coping mechanisms that have dug you into endless holes.


As always, I can’t say that I’m an expert, but I can tell you what works for me. Removing the option to carry out the shitty behavior, engaging my reasonable thinking brain, and redirecting energy in a different direction do me a lot of good.


1. Remove the negative coping measures


What’s the easiest way to stop digging a spoon into a jar of peanut butter once my avoidant tendencies have taken over? Get rid of the peanut butter. Have a penchant for stress-induced smoking? Same thing, toss the cigs away. Struggle with drinking during hard times? Yep, remove the booze. Physical removal of the tempting stimulus that enables your bad behavior is the quickest way to hit the pause button before your disassociated body continues to fuck you up. Then, work on putting yourself back in your body without the distraction.


2. Talk it out - with yourself


Your emotional brain and your survival brain tend to be overstimulated as a Traumatized Motherfucker. We’re really good at engaging our limbic system and our brain stem - the parts that keep us looking for danger and reacting to it (which is another function of survival). So, force your reasoning brain to get some blood flow. Talk out the issue, first to yourself. Just try to put words to the event... and do it out loud. It forces you to take a step back from the event, to see it from a new perspective as you search for the words to describe it, and it pulls energy away from the emotional control center that’s blaring alarms for no good reason. You might feel dumb describing an agitating email to yourself, but it will help you calm down.


3. Talk it out - with a friend


Ready to feel silly? Tell your tale to someone else. See if it still sounds like something to blow your lid over… or if you can just relate to each others’ shared penchant for getting a bit worked up when the circumstances didn’t really merit the response. Laugh. You’ll release a lot of tension. Plus, connecting over the experience will save you from some of the self-imparted shame. You aren’t alone. You aren’t the only one who loses their shit from time to time. You aren’t exclusively trigger happy with your “fuck it” responses. And you don’t need to punish yourself for it.


4. Do something that makes you feel positive


Who’s ready to be done with this shitty moment in time? Everyone. So, be done. Move on. Force your brain to stop ruminating. Shut down your perseverent thinking before it becomes a week of beating yourself down and driving your additive patterns up. Do something active so you aren’t getting trapped with freeze responses. Take a drive. Go for a walk. Sing some of your favorite songs. Work on a project that’s fulfilling to you. Change your environment, change where you’re directing energy, and let go of the tension that’s driving your shit-ass behavior.





Alright, that's my quick blurb on Distress Intolerance. Is it real? Real annoying. But Distress Intolerance has an impact on a lot of us.


When our inner worlds are already so tumultuous and full of discomfort, is it really any wonder that our external circumstances can be overwhelming? When every day is an internal hell, it just doesn't take much to push us head first into rapid spirals down all 9 circles. And, of course, when we're already prone to assigning ourselves blame for every sin in the world, why wouldn't we take a ruminating approach to fully terrorize ourselves for days in response to a momentary hiccup?


Ah, the life of a Traumatized Motherfucker. It is a tale of distress, avoidance, and self-flagellation.


What happens when we notice and reduce our internal discomfort, confront it head on, and stop punishing ourselves for the shortcomings of our fathers? Great fucking things.


The hardest part is understanding what's going on so you can start taking the first steps. Especially, when you're too busy avoiding the world in a state of distress.


Traumatized Motherfxckers

Not doomed. Not damaged.

Not dead yet.

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