3 Ways to Flex Your Distress Tolerance Muscle

Here’s a little story for you. I thought I was fairly distress tolerant … until we had to do rowing time trials at the end of a grueling workout. I had to row 500 meters in under 2:10 or do it again.

I have never sprinted so hard in my life.

My heart has never beat so fast.

I’ve never gasped so hard for breath.

I thought I might die.

I remember thinking, “If it ends here, it ends here.” Seriously!

I wanted to quit so many times in those 2 minutes. But I kept going. Why? To see what my body could handle. And you know what? It was way more than my mind told me it could. Thankfully, that initial experience stretched my distress tolerance muscle.

As we learn to tolerate unpleasant or unwanted thoughts and feelings like uncertainty and discomfort, we’re learning how to react and respond differently to our anxiety.

3 Ways to Flex Your Distress Tolerance Muscle

1. Practice urge surfing. Instead of avoiding or escaping, try sticking with it for a little longer. Ask yourself how long can you tolerate feeling this way — and set your timer. When the timer goes off, restart it.

2. Start practicing with neutral stimuli. Try it at the gym, saying no to something, or not checking your texts the minute it dings, playing Wordle.

3. Connect with something bigger. Remember your why. I think of that well known quote “where attention goes, energy flows.” If you want more worry, worry more.

I know this is all insanely hard. The thoughts and feelings seem so real and so powerful. It’s why seeking help can be essential.

For the record, I still hate rowing time trials, and I still do them.