Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person with a low distress tolerance

What Is ‘Distress Tolerance’ and Why Does It Help HSPs?

Distress tolerance is the key to managing stress in a healthy way, which is particularly important for highly sensitive people.

Last winter, my husband and I had to evacuate our home due to a wildfire in the middle of the night.

It was 1:30 in the morning when we saw the flames inching dangerously close to our little home in its canyon. The power was out. Sirens were going off. Police were driving through our neighborhood shouting over loudspeakers, “Residents must evacuate immediately!”

I remember being unable to think clearly. All I knew was we needed to leave. Fast.

“We’ve got 10 minutes to pack our bags and get out of here!” my husband told me as he coerced our cat into her carrier.

I felt emotionless and numb as I threw random items into my bag in the pitch-black house. Within minutes, we were packed and I was giving my husband a kiss goodbye. He’s a reserve firefighter and had to go fight the fire. The cat and I were going to stay with my parents.

The entire experience was traumatic, to say the least. And for me, a highly sensitive person (HSP), it was especially distressing. Being highly sensitive, it’s easy for me to feel overstimulated by things like loud noises, busy schedules, and feeling rushed. It’s safe to say that the stimulation I endured that night was the most intense I’d ever experienced.

(Are you an HSP? Here are 21 signs that you’re a highly sensitive person.)

What surprised me, though, was my ability to handle it. Despite the emotional intensity of the situation, I was able to remain calm. I held it together. I was okay. The reason for this is I’ve developed a fairly high distress tolerance, which is what allowed me to navigate this experience with more inner peace.

Whether you’re dealing with a negative coworker or you suddenly have to evacuate your home, expanding our distress tolerance helps us navigate life’s stressful moments with more ease. For us highly sensitive people, who get overstimulated easily, this is an invaluable life skill.

What Is Distress Tolerance?

Distress tolerance is a person’s ability to manage the actual and perceived emotional stress in their life. It’s a term the fields of psychology and mental health use to help people identify their tolerance level. If someone has a lower tolerance, the good news is that they can learn how to expand it.

“Everyone experiences stress in life,” Eidit Choochage, a therapist and mindset coach, told me. “The stress can vary from running errands, work, dating, and parenting to major life event changes, like a job loss, death of a loved one, divorce, and experiencing discrimination, and [includes] what we are all currently facing, living through a pandemic.”

Clearly, none of us are immune to stress, right? Inevitably, along with being human comes emotional life experiences that are out of our control. And as Choochage says, even small, daily responsibilities, like running errands, can cause a level of stress. I think many of us HSPs can understand this firsthand, as things such as back-to-back meetings or an overloaded to-do list can quickly feel overstimulating and emotionally draining to us.

“Distress tolerance is a person’s ability to manage their internal emotional state in relationship to the stress-inducing factors in their life, like the ones described above,” said Choochage. “Our ability to manage the stress is a key factor in how we experience our life.”

If someone has a low distress tolerance, they may feel unable to handle an emotionally stressful situation. For example, maybe they lost their job and feel incredibly stressed out. With a low distress tolerance, they may turn to unhealthy, or even destructive, coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, binge eating, or taking their anger out on other people.

While feeling upset about emotionally stressful situations is completely normal and expected, it’s all about the way we cope with it that determines our experience.

On the other hand, if someone with a higher distress tolerance lost their job, they’ll likely feel just as upset, but will cope with it in healthier ways. They may practice focusing on the things they can control, rather than ruminating on what they cannot. They’ll likely use healthy self-soothing techniques, such as taking a bath, listening to calming music, or going for a walk in nature.

The night we evacuated due to the wildfire, I gripped my steering wheel as I slowly inched out of our neighborhood — cars were honking and flames were visible in the distance. I breathed in slowly and deeply, calming my nervous system amidst the chaos around me. In my backseat, I’d brought along my weighted blanket because it helps reduce anxiety. I knew having a way to self-soothe and feel safe was going to come in handy while I was away from home.

How a Healthy Distress Tolerance Helps HSPs

From the examples I’ve shared already, you’re probably beginning to see how a healthy distress tolerance is helpful to HSPs. Now, let’s go a little deeper and learn some of the science behind it. It’s important to become familiar with your own distress tolerance, so Choochage shared how we can do this.

“A helpful way to understand this [distress tolerance] about ourselves is to look at this through the lens of the ‘Window of Tolerance,’ which is a term coined by Psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel,” said Choochage. “[This] describes what is happening to our brain and body when facing stress and adversity. The Window of Tolerance is used to describe the zones of arousal state we function in and shows us which zone, if we are to stay there, is most effective.”

Dr. Siegal’s three zones within the Window of Tolerance are the Hyperarousal Zone, the Optimal Arousal Zone, and the Hypoarousal Zone.

  • In the Hyperarousal Zone, we feel overstimulated and our sympathetic nervous system is activated which is connected to the “fight/freeze/flight” response in our brains. In this state, Choochage said we’ll likely experience, “…racing thoughts, hypervigilance, feeling unsafe, emotional overwhelm, tension, and defensiveness, just to name a few.”
  • “The second zone, our Optimal Arousal Zone, is our ideal ‘Window of Tolerance’, Choochage explained. “Here, we experience empathy; our feelings are manageable; we feel safe; we are aware of our boundaries, as well as other people’s boundaries, and we are connected to the present moment.”
  • In the Hypoarousal Zone, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which can make us feel lethargic and like we have a lack of energy or motivation. In this state, we’re receiving too little arousal. “People will often describe this zone experience as feeling no energy; [they] can’t defend themselves, [they have a] hard time saying no, feel shame, passive, a numbing of emotions, and feel disconnected from themselves, others, and/or the world around them,” said Choochage. 

If you’re a highly sensitive person with a low distress tolerance, you’re likely operating at a baseline of either Hyperarousal or Hypoarousal, which will cause you to become much more overwhelmed by even mildly stressful situations. If this sounds like you, the first step is to bring conscious awareness to this behavioral pattern in order to shift out of it. From there, you can begin developing and practicing distress tolerance skills to stay within the Optimal Arousal Zone.

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How to Expand Your Distress Tolerance

In order to expand your distress tolerance and stay in the Optimal Arousal Zone, it’s important to become aware of your triggers. In other words, pay attention to who or what in your environment increases and decreases your stress. (And you fellow HSPs know how everything in our environment impacts us!) Choochage recommends journaling for a week or two to collect this data for yourself.

Once you’re aware of your triggers, you can make it a practice to do more of what decreases your stress and less of what increases it. For example, if you find that yoga greatly decreases your stress, you may want to incorporate them into your life regularly. On the other hand, if you find that working through your lunch increases your stress, you may want to commit to always taking a 30-minute break for lunch.

There are also therapies that can provide you with the skills to increase your distress tolerance. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, aims to change thinking and behavioral patterns while dialectal behavioral therapy (DBT) provides people with skills to help them manage their emotions through methods such as mindfulness and emotion regulation. (Plus, regardless, mindfulness is a great practice for highly sensitive souls to get more grounded and feel less overwhelmed.) 

Inevitably, stressful life moments will occur. There’s only so much we can control, right? So Choochage said it’s important to have grounding practices at the ready, such as splashing cool water on your face, physical movement, or meditation to bring you back to that Optimal Arousal Zone.

For me, a daily low-impact workout and 10-15 minute meditation is a nonnegotiable part of my day. I begin every single morning with these two practices, which allows me to stay in that Optimal Arousal Zone more often. As a result of these practices, I was able to remain calm when we evacuated from our home due to the fire.

For three days, I remained evacuated and waited anxiously to hear if our home would survive the fire or not. During this time, I spent a lot of time lying under my weighted blanket. I also used self-soothing practices, such as taking baths, eating nourishing meals, and doing short yoga sequences. Although it was tempting to stay glued to the news, I reminded myself to take breaks from it since I knew it increased my stress, especially as a highly sensitive person.

I’m happy to report that our home survived the fire and my reserve firefighter husband was safe and sound, too.

Some situations are in our control — like the way we meditate each morning or set up our schedules. But others — like a global pandemic or wildfire — are not. What we always have control over, however, is the way we choose to react to these experiences.

For each of us, having healthy ways to deal with our emotional stress is important. And for highly sensitive people who are already more prone to stress, it’s truly life-changing.

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