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More PsychNotes: Emotions

June 1, 2016       

Developing Emotional Tolerance
by Monica A. Frank, PhD


I often see comments regarding the Excel At Life relaxation and mindfulness audios:

“This audio is my favorite.”

“I can't stand her voice!”

"Her voice is soothing."

“I don't like the music.”

“I love the music—can I get it by itself?”

People have different preferences and when choosing the audios solely for relaxation or for sleep, it is best to choose them according to your preferences. However, if you want to learn how to use them as a mindful method to develop emotional tolerance, it is important to expand beyond what you like. Emotional tolerance is the ability to bear uncomfortable emotions without a strong negative reaction.

What are the benefits of developing emotional tolerance?

1) Comfort with the unpleasant. How many times do you say to yourself “I can't stand this!” or “I wish this was over” or “Can it get any worse?” Most of the time people try to escape unpleasant experiences. However, there are many times you can't escape such as a work meeting or a medical test or a school project. Does it do any good to keep reminding yourself how much you don't like it? No, it actually makes it worse because you are focused on the negative. When you can learn to to be more comfortable with things you don't like or don't enjoy, these experiences won't seem as unpleasant.

2) Emotional balance. Much of our emotional balance comes from the ability to be at peace with unpleasant experiences. When you place demands on yourself or the world around you then your emotions become more intense: “It shouldn't be this way!” or “I should be able to handle this.” Anger often comes from these types of demands and expectations of others. When you can tolerate experiences you may not like you can maintain greater control over your emotions.

3) Resistance to pain. The ability to tolerate the unpleasant provides greater resistance to pain. The more you focus on how awful the pain is, the worse it becomes. Reducing demand thinking and developing emotional tolerance can often make pain more bearable.

4) Psychological flexibility. People who have the ability to adapt to change are happier and more successful. The ability to tolerate the discomfort of change allows you to focus more on the aspects of life that can lead to greater well-being. Instead of staring at a door saying “I wish it would open” flexibility allows you to find another door. My article Coping with Change: Psychological Flexibility explains this in greater detail.

How can the audios be used to develop emotional tolerance?

Instead of just listening to the audios you find most pleasant, try expanding your experience. It is easy to listen to what you like but if you truly want to develop emotional tolerance, listen to the audios that are not as immediately pleasant for you and see if you can get something out of them through a mindful focus.

Think of it this way: no matter how much you might dislike certain audios, in the scheme of things, they are not that awful. The only pain or problem they can cause is due to your thoughts about them. For instance, if you are trying to sleep and your neighbor's air conditioner is making noise, the more you think about it the more it disturbs you. When you develop a greater tolerance for the unpleasant noise, the more likely it blends into the background. The same process can occur with the audios. As you accept the audio without the judgment you may find it is not as unpleasant as you thought.

The first step is learning to use the relaxation methods. During the initial learning it is best to use the audios that are more pleasant for you. However, as you become more skilled try audios you don't think you would like as much. If you like the beach but don't like the cold, then try the mountain cabin imagery. Or, if you don't like heat, try the tropical garden or the desert imagery.

By mindfully experiencing these audios and being able to relax with the ones you don't like you will develop greater emotional tolerance. As you learn to tolerate different experiences with the audios you can eventually transfer that ability to other aspects of your life. However, it may take more practice than using the ones you find most pleasant.

You may even find new favorites.

Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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