Build a Distress Tolerance--Seek Out the Suck

November 7, 2022 Joanna Satterwhite

I'm writing this just a few minutes removed from a morning run, which I hated almost every second. I'm not like the runners you see in the movies who gracefully jog with their camera-ready smiles; my face is usually fixed in a mask of focused despair, disguising not at all how distasteful I find the whole situation. This run was no different—my feet hurt, my heart pounded quicker than it wanted to, and my respiration struggled to keep pace. In short, the run absolutely, unmistakably, irrevocably sucked. It was exactly what I'd hoped for. I was hoping to increase my distress tolerance.

Reading that last statement, you might mistake me for a masochist. It's true that part of the benefit of running, for me, is how much I dislike it, but this isn't because I find pleasure in pain. It's because I find pleasure in growth, and whether I like it or not, all growth happens in the uncomfortable margins. 

A thousand and one metaphors speak to the importance of leaving your comfort zone for the sake of your own evolution, and unfortunately, they're all true. In exercise physiology, this phenomenon is referred to as progressive overload: the process of challenging your muscles slightly beyond what they are used to in order to create the necessary circumstances for an increase in strength, speed, or stamina. In philosophical terms, this can be viewed through the lens of the Hegelian dialectic. Take an existing precept, challenge it with new information, and watch a higher truth emerge from the conflict. No matter how you cut it, growth has a price. What does it cost? Does it cost discomfort?

Distress Tolerance 101

Discomfort is something that most people spend oodles of time, energy, and money trying to avoid. It's one thing to be forced to undergo an uncomfortable physical or emotional situation; it's another thing entirely to seek one out. If it's a positive change—otherwise known as growth—that you're looking for, though, you need to get good with discomfort. 

The proper jargon for this is "distress tolerance," the ability to withstand the disagreeable. This capacity is the first and foremost prerequisite for growth of any kind. The higher a distress tolerance a person has, the higher their ceiling for growth is. Distress tolerance is what kept me putting one foot in front of the other this morning faster than my body would've preferred because the only way to build a distress tolerance is to tolerate distress. 

This can't be a thought experiment. To build your distress tolerance, you need to pursue things you find uncomfortable and grit them out. Start small. Building this ability is a form of growth like anything else, and sustainable growth takes time. Rome wasn't built in a day, nor was the mightiest distress tolerance. Build discomfort into your day in tiny doses. Get your heart rate pumping for two minutes here, or talk to your obnoxious neighbor for 10 minutes there. Reclassify anything and everything you find distasteful as an opportunity to practice and increase your distress tolerance. 

The only way out is through. I didn't come up with that, but it's such an obvious statement that it goes without citing (although Robert Frost said something akin to it in his poem "Servant of Servants"). Everything you want to become, accomplish, or experience is on the other side of something unpleasant. So seek out the unpleasant and learn to love it as the way forward.  

APA Reference
Satterwhite, J. (2022, November 7). Build a Distress Tolerance--Seek Out the Suck, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 16 from

Author: Joanna Satterwhite

Joanna is a writer and teacher based in Atlanta. Find her on Substack and Instagram

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