Distress understood as high intense negative feelings
It is well known that when in distress we cannot retain information and that our ability to learn, reflect and make sensible decisions is impaired.
Distress is a complex phenomenon that hijacks a whole bunch of psychological processes, from attention and memory to interpretation and expectation. This is an important topic not only for the ones who pursue and deliver therapy but for anyone involved in the process of learning (children and teachers in particular). These notes are preoccupied with high, intense emotions that are experienced at distressful levels.
It is highly intuitive that when in distress we tend to seek relief. How we seek relief is the key in managing distress.
We experience relief when we bypass negative encounters by avoiding a whole range of difficulties and consequences: getting home before running out of petrol; getting the train before it leaves the station. Anyone who has experienced relief will know that it is intoxicating; it is also highly addictive due to its reinforcing powers: if only we did not have to talk to the person (the teacher, the boss, the ex-friend) who makes us feel uncomfortable. Avoiding situations gives us relief, but the problems remain unresolved and adaptive coping is yet to be learnt.
If avoidance is not a helpful strategy, how can we sit with uncomfortable situations when we feel that we can not bear/cope with them? There might be some comfort in the knowledge that we can actually tolerate more than we think we can.
We tend to avoid the things that we dislike. It does not cross our mind to taste the food that we do not like, but then how do we explain that we now enjoy foods that we disliked in the past? The appraisal that a characteristic is attractive or unattractive is a consequence of positive and negative reinforcements from our environment, and therefore our likes and dislikes are not random occurrences.
We mistakenly attribute the dislike to a situation, a person or a task without being aware that it is the feeling that we experience that we do not like. ‘I dislike her’ vs ‘I dislike the feelings that I get when I am with her’ brings comfort to a soul tormented by adherence to prosocial values. We are welcoming you on the journey of accepting and making space for uncomfortable feelings. In this way the intensity of such feelings remains at bearable levels. Good coping starts with accepting and allowing us to feel, sitting with an emotion (emotions die out; they are not permanent), it then continues with labelling the feeling and seeking to understand it.
Take for instance the feeling of annoyance; we all agree it is unpleasant, mimicking anger and irritability. Its main layer is dislike accompanied by urges to lash out. Annoyance will signal a demand that others need to change in line with our likes and dislikes. This is close to demanding a tabby cat to stop bringing dead mice to the door because we can not stand it. It is an unrealistic and unhelpful expectation. Annoyance is our own struggle whilst facing given circumstances. Changing what you can and accepting/making space for what you cannot change is a common sense approach. In this way ‘It is annoying’ becomes ‘I feel annoyed and I do not tolerate annoyance very well’.
Statements such as ‘I don’t like her. I hate being criticised. I hate not knowing. I cannot bear being stared at. I cannot cope. I cannot do it. I dread the event/situation.’ are the hallmarks of not tolerating unpleasant feelings. It is not the situations, people, events that we dislike, but the feelings or the bodily symptoms that we experience when we encounter situations. With increased awareness comes increased options to respond differently. Maybe I do not need to lash out, maybe I could just sit with the feeling without letting it pull me into something automatic and destructive. Maybe I could just put at the forefront what really matters to me: school, job, being a good parent, friend.
The rule of thumb is that the more we dislike, the less tolerant we become, of self, others and situations.
A negative emotion experienced at high intensity equals distress. The intensity of the emotion depends on the following:
- the level of dislike/how much we dislike the feelings or the bodily symptoms
- how much we fear it/them
- the intensity of the urge to seek relief through: avoidance, control, reassurance, lashing out and caving in/hide away from life.
For example, the more we dislike feeling anxious in social situations (because we dislike being judged, people staring at us), the more we want to avoid feeling anxious. The more we tend to avoid social situations (to seek relief), the more likely it is that we are going to experience social situation as distressful. We feel highly uncomfortable when judged, criticised or stared at if we had been severely and/or persistently exposed to such experiences (criticism, public humiliation, rejection, betrayal and so on).
Negative emotions are not in themselves distressful. Some people described feeling empowered when angry; others enjoy the feelings of fear whilst watching horror movies; some people accept sadness as their source of creativity.
The antidote of distress is not relief, but soothing. The key message is that when in distress we need immediate comfort and then encouragement to carry on. Take the example of a child who falls and gets injured. The mother’s kiss will ‘make it better’ (the pain will be taken away by the natural opiates released during soothing). And then what follows from here is extremely important: the mother will not invite the child to sit down for the rest of his life, but she will encourage him to carry on. According to the theory of distress, soothing followed by encouragement is enough to discourage the unhelpful behaviour (lashing out).
Here are some helpful strategies of managing distress with immediate effect: taking a few breaths in, labelling the feeling, making space for it, placing our attention on relatively neutral stimuli (paying attention to the noises or the colours in the room), allowing ourselves to be comforted (a sense that we are and will be okay), de-catastrophizing followed by problem-solving.
The moral of these notes is that seeking relief from negative feelings by avoiding people, situations and events or lashing out is counterproductive for our emotional well-being as it generates a whole bunch of problems (distress, anger problems, depression and anxiety). Negative feelings are not to be liked or disliked, they are to be lived and experienced whilst making sense of them. Our feelings are in response to our circumstances, but such circumstances are not to be solely held responsible for how we feel.
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