Throughout our lives, we go through many stressful situations that can generate a high level of distress and anxiety. However, many times we are not in control of circumstances, so that we have no choice but to exercise the last of our freedoms: the ability to choose the attitude with which we will face adversity.
When things go wrong and problems, tensions and conflicts pile up, there is a key skill that will save us from anguish and suffering: stress tolerance.
What is Stress Tolerance?
Stress tolerance is the ability to withstand pressure and exertion without breaking down, 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 involves coping with the anguish and anxiety generated by stressful and adverse situations. It is therefore 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 implies resisting distressing internal states caused by some kind of stressful or negative event. This means that we can maintain a basic level of functioning that allows us to cope with stressful events in an adaptive way, preventing negative emotions from interfering too much with our performance.
Low stress tolerance, the risks involved
These days, when we have to go against time and obligations multiply, having a low tolerance to stress can be very harmful because it will lead us to live in a state of almost permanent tension and anguish.
A person with a low tolerance to stress will be more likely to respond maladaptively when circumstances put them on the ropes. She is likely to become extremely reactive and react impulsively or even aggressively, or she may adopt avoidance strategies that end up damaging her.
In this sense, a survey conducted at the Massachusetts General Hospital with 118 people who had HIV found that those with low stress tolerance tended to have more depressive symptoms, consumed more alcohol and drugs, or abandoned treatment within a six month period after experiencing adverse life events.
Other research has found that people with low stress tolerance are more impulsive and are more likely to develop bulimia, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and / or drug addiction.
The main problem is that people with low stress tolerance often use experiential avoidance strategies to escape negative emotions or related adverse states. To try to escape these emotions, they exhibit maladaptive behaviors that end up being harmful. For this reason, psychologists have concluded that low stress tolerance is an indicator of risk while a high level of stress tolerance acts as a protective factor against various mental disorders.
Interestingly, stress tolerance not only affects our mental balance, it also permeates the way we perceive the world. Another study conducted at Tel Aviv University found that people with low stress tolerance also have a greater tendency to fall into stereotypes. This is because they have a hard time handling ambiguity, so they jump to conclusions quickly to feel on safer ground.
The 5 pillars on which stress tolerance is built
People who tolerate stress 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, as the unexpected adds to the weight of the disaster. The fact that it was unexpected intensifies a person's reaction. That's why we need to make sure nothing takes us by surprise. […] We must foresee all possibilities and strengthen the spirit to deal with the things that can happen if we do not want to feel overwhelmed and numb. […] Everyone faces something more courageously for which they have been preparing for a long time. Those who are unprepared, on the other hand, will react badly to smaller events ”, wrote Seneca centuries ago. People who tolerate stress are able to anticipate negative experiences and psychologically prepare for them.
2. Take your attention away from negative emotions. When we're going through a bad time, it's normal for all of our attention to focus on what's going on. But in this way we can end up maximizing the problems, immersing ourselves in the toxic cycle that our mind creates and feeds on complaints. People with higher stress tolerance, on the other hand, are not obsessed with adverse circumstances or feelings, but 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 about what happens to them and to be able to move forward with a certain normality.
3. Re-evaluation 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 distress can become a lens through which we see the world in a distorted way. This can make us believe that everything is more unbearable or terrible. People who tolerate stress do not like adverse situations, but they are able to reduce their impact to an acceptable level that allows them to continue managing their daily lives and regain as much normalcy as possible. They can do this because they are able to see the big picture. They understand that the problem that worries them today will likely be irrelevant or overdue in a month or a year. This allows them to see their concerns in a more realistic light.
4. Ability to regulate behavior. People with stress tolerance are able to maintain an adequate degree of self-control that prevents negative emotions from influencing their behavior too much. So they maintain an adaptive level of functioning even in the middle of the storm. Their level of self-regulation prevents an emotional hijacking from occurring, so they don't hit bottom emotionally, but even in the most difficult moments they manage to maintain a routine. Interestingly, it is often that routine that allows them to relieve the load they are carrying on their shoulders to reduce 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's easier to get overwhelmed by 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 go wrong or are even aware that they could get worse, but they encourage each other and trust their abilities to deal with what happens. They say: "I can do it", "I am a strong person", "this will pass", "I got up before and I can do it again". That positive inner dialogue gives them the strength they need to carry on until the storm subsides.