Do you find yourself losing control when anything goes wrong, even just a little? Do you feel that everything should be easy? Do you hate whenever you’re the slightest bit uncomfortable? Then you might have Low Frustration Tolerance (LFT). Frustration is something every person must deal with from time to time. To unplanned changes to your schedule to something not working correctly, to live is to be frustrated.
So, what separates low frustration tolerance from healthier forms of coping, otherwise known as High Frustration Tolerance (HFT)? Read on and you’ll find out what LFT is, what you can do about it, and types of counseling you may want to consider if therapy is the right option.
What is Low Frustration Tolerance?
Named by Albert Ellis, a famed psychologist who created Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), this is known as an inability to handle frustration. On a deeper level, this is the individual’s need for reality to be as they wish (ie: pleasant and not painful or frustrating). They wish for the frustration to be quickly resolved. When it can’t, the frustration grows and leads to emotional disturbances and dysregulation.
Those with LFT will do their best to avoid frustrating situations. However, this leads to more overall frustration (never learning how to cope with frustration) and increases mental anguish over difficult situations. LFT will often cause individuals to put off anything stressful or difficult as long as possible because it’s just too painful to bear.
This can range from low-level events like checking emails or choosing a gift for someone’s birthday to more pressing events, like not breaking off an unhealthy relationship (it would be too painful to tell the other person), unwillingness to leave a bad job (it’s too hard to find another one), and prolonging unhealthy lifestyle choices (poor eating, procrastination, etc). In fact, it has been theorized that LFT is the leading cause of procrastination.
Problems can arise from individual stressors like dealing with traffic jams or even dropping an object. It can reach a boiling point when dealing with others. This is especially true in relationships where one should show patience for their partner. Those with low frustration tolerance might get easily upset when their partner isn’t perfect or even explode at the slightest altercation.
In general, this is the inability to handle frustration.
What Causes Low Frustration Tolerance?
There are several common reasons individuals suffer from low frustration tolerance. The most common reasons include:
- Mental Illness. Low frustration tolerance is the hallmark of depression (and consequently bipolar disorder) and anxiety. It’s also very common with ADHD.
- Biology. Those on the autism spectrum may suffer from low frustration tolerance.
- Personality. Have you ever taken the Big Five personality test? Those higher on the neuroticism scale typically have difficulty with regulating frustration and are known for feeling anxious, angry, worried, and inflexible to change.
- Personal Beliefs. If someone believes that life should be easy, that everyone should meet their expectations, and that anything frustrating should be ignored will often become less tolerant of typical stressors.
- Irrational Beliefs/Thoughts. This is a common component of REBT, CBT, and many other behavioral therapies. These are beliefs that are often extreme and out of scope with reality. Just a few include: I must do everything well or I am incompetant; I must be loved by everyone or I am unlovable; I must avoid others if they do not treat me well. These create mental stress and internal frustration.
What Does Low Frustration Tolerance Look Like?
This can manifest in many different ways, but some of the most common include:
- Frequent procrastination stemming from inability to tolerate anything frustrating or uncomfortable
- Exaggerating discomfort
- Avoiding tasks that could cause discomfort
- Impulsively trying to fix situations without allowing them to correct themselves
- Focus on immediate gratification
- Unwillingness to overcome obstacles or challenges
- Consistent feelings of being unable to stand how frustrating “everything” is
Again, these are just some common ways it can manifest. Do you have any others to share? Feel free to comment below.
What Can I do About Low Frustration Tolerance?
While LFT can have wide sweeping effects on your life, there are many skills and changes you can make to better deal with the frustration while also building tolerance to frustration in general. The following are several things you can try to help with your LFT.
Change Irrational Thoughts
Irrational thoughts are found in all people, not just those with LFT. However, the irrational thoughts here primarily regard feelings of how difficult and awful the world is and how things must change right now. Some common irrational thoughts someone with LFT might experience include:
- “I must feel good and satisfied right now, or else life is horrible and I can’t stand it.”
- “Life should give me what I like, otherwise I can never be happy.”
- “Existing conditions are frustrating and will always be frustrating.”
As you might notice, there is “always” thinking here along with making present situations much bigger than they really are. Being frustrated is part of life. Not having what you want right now is common for most of us. You will want to change this into more rational thinking that is less exaggerated and more in tune with reality.
- “I don’t feel good now, but I can feel good later.”
- “I would like something now.”
- “This is frustrating now, but will be better later.”
Whenever you notice yourself going into always/never thinking of concentrating on how terrible things are, then that’s your LFT trying to talk for you. Slow down, recognize the thought, and understand that frustrations are unpleasant, but you can get through them. This can build your tolerance to frustration and also help you get through whatever is frustrating you now.
Relax Your Body – Breathing Exercises
The mental stress of LFT affects the body as well. Your heart rate goes up, certain muscles tense (shoulders, neck, jaw, abs, legs, etc), and you become hyper-vigilant. None of this is healthy. It can lead to pains and, in extreme cases, lasting health problems.
Learning to relax your body will reduce the physical effects of LFT. Physical activity helps, and you don’t have to do anything too rigorous. Anything from a short walk to an intense cardio or weight-based workout will help.
What else can you do? Breathing exercises can assist with relaxation. There are many different kinds, so I’ll only cover two here, but any breathing exercise can relax the body.
The first one uses pursed lips. Breathe in deeply and slowly to the count of four. Hold for at least four seconds, and then breathe out slowly through pursed lips, as if you were trying to whistle. This helps to slow down the exhale even further. This should go for a count of eight, but longer is fine (shorter isn’t as useful).
The other is box breathing. Breathe in to the count of four. Hold your breath for four seconds. Breathe out to the count of four. Wait for four seconds. Keep doing this until you feel relaxed (at least 3-5 times, but longer might be necessary if you’re feeling very stressed from LFT).
Relax Your Body – Meditation
Meditation can also be very helpful. There are hundreds of meditation techniques, but I will assume you are a beginner (which is perfectly fine!). These instructions are super simple, so simple in fact you might wonder if this can do anything at all. Try this at least a few times to see if meditation works for you.
Sit or lie down in a comfortable place. Some people say you need to sit a certain way, but we are going to ignore that here. Just make sure you’re comfortable. Close your eyes and focus on the sound of your breathing. Try not to think about anything.
Thoughts will come up, but let them float by. Just stay still with your eyes closed and try to think of nothing. Do this for at least 60 seconds. Go longer if you can, but 60 seconds is a good place to start.
Relax Your Body – Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation involves both controlled breathing and meditation along with tensing and relaxing your muscles. It might sound counterintuitive to tense your muscles, but when done properly you’ll find your body feels much more relaxed when you’re finished.
Start by closing your eyes and sit or lie comfortably. Breathe in, tense the first muscle group, and then breathe out after several seconds while releasing the muscle. I like starting from the calves and working up to my neck and jaw muscles, but do it in any order you prefer.
While tensing, be mindful of how forceful you’re being. You don’t want to tense the muscle so much that it hurts, that’s not relaxing. Do it enough so that the muscle feels harder, but it’s not shaking or painful.
Push Your Limits
Part of building your tolerance and getting to HFT is to put yourself in frustrating environments while actively staying calm. Don’t do anything too intense. That will drive you further away from developing tolerance. Just do something that seems tough, but manageable.
For example, let’s say that you can’t stand waiting in line. Go somewhere with short to moderate lines (like food stores or restaurants) and get in a line. Nothing too long, you want to exercise your tolerance. Just get in line and keep yourself calm and collected. Show yourself that you can do this and you can stay calm while building your frustration tolerance.
Remember: manageable but doable.
If a line of 3-5 people is enough to drive you into a frenzy, then I wouldn’t suggest trying this at an amusement park where the lines can last an hour or longer. Pat yourself on the back when you’re done and record your feelings. Journaling can be used to track your thoughts, feelings, and emotions while building your frustration tolerance.
Therapy Designed for LFT
The truth is that many therapy types can address low frustration tolerance. However, this term was first coined by Albert Ellis, the founder of REBT. As such, you can expect an REBT counselor to know about low frustration along with how to help improve your frustration tolerance.
Many of the “BT” counseling types can help in similar ways. This includes CBT and DBT (though this deals more with Distress Tolerance and works primarily with personality disorders and bipolar disorder). As a fundamental part of depression, anxiety, and ADHD, you can expect any counseling technique that addresses these mental illnesses to have tools for improving your frustration tolerance.
Low frustration tolerance is the hallmark of many mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, and ADHD, but it’s also found in those who are highly neurotic or who just hate discomfort. It’s a leading cause of procrastination and often makes people avoid seemingly difficult situations, which can reduce quality of life and overall accomplishment. If you or anyone else feels that they have trouble with LFT, then follow the suggestions here and consider speaking with a counselor.
While REBT and CBT are the most common types of counseling that directly address this issue, nearly any talk therapy will have some tools and techniques to help build your frustration. Regardless of how you go about it, be well, be safe, and I wish the best for you.