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Tolerating Discomfort

Most of us have an intense fear of being uncomfortable. In fact, we are taught to fear discomfort from infancy. As babies, our expressions of discomfort are adaptive. They inform our caretakers when we need to be fed, changed, or put down for a nap. A baby’s scream is built to be heart-wrenching to surrounding adults, and thus the baby’s needs are usually met quickly, and discomfort is rapidly relieved.

It’s no surprise, then, that we develop an aversion to discomfort as we grow into adulthood. Of course, exceedingly high levels of pain need to be addressed seriously and promptly, as they are our body’s way of communicating that something is awry. However, why do we often go to such lengths to avoid (or immediately alleviate) lower levels of discomfort?

I would argue that learning to tolerate discomfort – learning to sit with it, be curious about what it has to tell us, and watching it pass organically – is a life-changing skill that warrants some practice.

Consider the following types of discomfort and how they might actually work to improve your quality of life:

Hunger Discomfort

As a psychologist who treats obesity, I work with patients daily who have developed such a fear of hunger that they eat when they feel the slightest twinge of emptiness in their bellies. They no longer remember what it’s like to feel hunger because eating has become so automatic.

Use the pain: If you are trying to lose weight, then experiencing moderate levels of hunger some of the time is a necessary part of the process. Physical hunger is usually a sign that your body is using more calories than you are providing it, and therefore is going into its “reserves” for energy.  Guess what?  That’s exactly what needs to happen for weight loss to occur. So, dieters should actually take comfort in their experience of this moderate physical hunger. This means the process is working.

Exercise Discomfort

Feeling your heart rate soar, countering the resistance of a heavy weight, and noticing the burn of lactic acid build-up the next day can be perceived as uncomfortable. For some people, the anticipation of this discomfort is enough to cause them to avoid exercising altogether.

Use the pain:  Whether you are exercising in an attempt to improve your physique or to increase your endurance and stamina, you will only achieve your goals if your body is challenged beyond its normal state of functioning. If you feel as comfortable during exercise as you do when you’re lying on your couch, then you are probably wasting your time, and you’re not likely to see the changes that you desire. Thus, try to re-interpret discomfort during and after exercise as a sign that you are moving closer to your objective.

Loss Discomfort

Losing a loved one (either via death, divorce, or the dissolution of a relationship) is one of the most painful aspects of the human experience. The emotions that we experience after such a loss – feelings like depression, anger, helplessness, or loneliness – can produce significant discomfort. Sometimes we turn toward unhealthy distractions (such as substance use or overeating) to temporarily escape our negative state of mind.

Use the pain: The intensity of your emotions following a loss is usually proportionate to the degree of love and connectedness that characterized the relationship. If you had not developed a true and meaningful bond with the person whom you lost, your pain would not be so great. Thus, you can view the negative feelings that accompany the loss as testament to the great gift that relationship provided you. If you reinterpret your feelings in this way, you will welcome them (rather than avoid them) and you will retain control of your emotional state.

About Katie Rickel, PhD

Dr. Katie Rickel graduated summa cum laude from Duke University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Florida. She completed an APA-accredited clinical internship in health psychology at Duke University Medical Center, with advanced training in behavioral and bariatric obesity treatment as well as the psychological management of chronic pain and illness. Dr. Rickel also has expertise in treating anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias. Her research has been presented at various professional conferences and published in scientific journals. Dr. Rickel has also appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and has been quoted in several popular media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Health magazine, Yahoo! Health, Women’s Health magazine, Weight Watchers magazine, and abcnews.com.

View all posts by Katie Rickel, PhD