Labeling Discomfort

Behavior change is hard. No matter what behavior you are trying to change in your life – exercise habits, eating habits, sleeping habits, drinking habits, shopping habits – it’s all hard. It’s hard because we are asking ourselves to do something different and new, which is not something that human beings really tend to enjoy. 

There is a fundamental truth in psychology: human beings are optimizers, we are always looking for the path of least resistance.  This is true with our cognitions (a fancy way of saying thoughts) and this is also true with our behaviors. We want what is simplest, easiest, requires the least amount of effort, and gives us the biggest bang for our buck.

What this also means is that when we want to change our habits (our everyday way of behaving) it does not always go well. This is because we are asking ourselves to exert more effort, more thought, more behavior, in order to reach a new goal.  

So what does this mean for us as we go along the process of learning new behaviors and establishing new habits?  It means that we will contact something that psychologists call distress. We are either tolerant or intolerant of distress. 

In the research literature psychologists define distress tolerance as, “(a) the perceived capacity to withstand negative emotional and/or other aversive states and (b) the behavioral act of withstanding distressing internal states elicited by some type of stressor” (Zvolensky, Vujanovic, Bernstein & Leyro, 2010, p. 578). Distress tolerance is also defined as “the capacity to experience and withstand negative psychological states” (Simons & Gaher, 2005, p.83). 

What does this mean in simple English? I like to think of distress tolerance as the following: how good you are at sitting with things that are terrible and not trying to run away or avoid those terrible things. These terrible things are feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations. Basically, any terrible thing that exists within your skin.  

Often in the course of a lifetime, we develop ways to deal with these distressing things, we develop ways to tolerate distress. Sometimes the way we deal with distress is very good, like sitting with our feelings and actually feeling them. Sometimes how we deal is very unhelpful – like eating an entire pizza or cake so as to avoid feeling distressed. As human beings, we all have different abilities at dealing with distress, but when we are trying to change some behavior – like our eating habits – we are often changing our way of dealing with our life, so we have to develop new habits. Which is hard.

Psychologists point to distress intolerance as an explanation for why people will give up on changing their habits after a short time. Making new habits is hard; it is by definition distressing.  

We can all get better at learning how to deal with distress, we are all capable of learning new habits, we just have to get through the initial phases. In the next post I write, I hope to share some techniques that can be used to help build up distress tolerance so that we can accomplish the goals we set for ourselves. 


Meredith A. Holland, MS, BCBA



Meredith holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with an emphasis on counseling psychology and behavior analysis. She is a PhD Student in Psychology with an emphasis in behavior analysis. She is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and a Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo Valley Community College

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