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What low frustration tolerance is, and 3 ways to manage it

August 30, 2022 - 8 min read
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    How do you handle setbacks and minor inconveniences when they arise?

    If your answer is that “There’s no such thing as a minor inconvenience,” you may have low frustration tolerance. A low frustration tolerance, sometimes abbreviated LFT, can make you feel overly sensitive and easily flustered. 

    But it’s not just your personality. Frustration tolerance is a component of emotional regulation skills. When it’s low, you find yourself bothered, angry, or thrown off by routine stressors. When frustration tolerance is high, you’re able to quickly reframe setbacks and inconveniences.

    To some extent, your frustration tolerance might feel like part of your personality. But it is possible to develop this emotional regulation skill — and it’s worth the effort. People with high frustration tolerance are more resilient, have better relationships, and are more optimistic. 

    If you find yourself ticked off all the time, take a few deep breaths and keep reading. This article covers the roots of low frustration tolerance and how to strengthen it.

    What is low frustration tolerance?

    Building frustration tolerance starts with understanding the root of the issue — frustration.

    According to the emotion wheel, frustration is an emotion related to anger. We experience it when something gets in our way. Typically, this frustration only arises in response to major setbacks — a missed opportunity or feeling stuck in some major way. But for those with low tolerance, frustration feels impossible to deal with. The sensitivity threshold is so low that even “small” stressors, like missing a phone call or nearby construction, are far over the line.

    What likely happens is that setbacks trigger a kind of cognitive dissonance in those with low frustration tolerance. In order to deal with it, the person feels compelled to act. The physical and psychological discomfort are too much to handle.

    Low frustration tolerance can be a symptom of ADHD, anxiety disorders, and other mental health conditions. The feelings of frustration — and subsequent outbursts — can interfere with mental well-being.

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    Where low frustration tolerance stems from

    LFT is thought to be developed in childhood. Some experts believe that it’s a result of parenting styles or exposure to stressful environments. It can also be a learned response to chronic stress and frustration. 

    Generally, there are three causes psychologists point to at the root of low frustration tolerance:

    • Personality: some individuals seem to have lower levels of frustration tolerance than others. This may support the childhood development theory.
    • Mental health: conditions like anxiety, depression, and some neurodivergent conditions can lower tolerance of stressful situations. On the other hand, building mental fitness can improve tolerance.
    • Thought patterns: those who expect things to go smoothly may have a hard time with perceived unfairness or disappointments.

    LFT can trigger a cycle. People with low frustration tolerance often have negative self-talk and feel that life is unfair. When frustrations arise, they react to avoid feeling the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, those reactions may not be productive or helpful. This propensity toward reactivity may prevent them from developing problem-solving and decision-making skills.

    person-spilled-coffee-on-themselves-low-frustration-tolerance

    7 signs of low frustration tolerance

    It’s not just frustrating situations that can trigger an outburst. Or — better put — anything has the potential to become a frustrating situation if your tolerance is low enough. Here are some signs that you might have LFT: 

    • You’re easily irritated or angry when things don't happen the way you want them to
    • You are rigid and inflexible with plans or ways of doing things
    • You lose patience easily with others — and even yourself
    • You are restless, constantly looking for things to do
    • You have a hard time being bored or waiting for things to happen
    • You have thoughts of self-harm in reaction to relatively small upsets
    • You have a hard time pursuing anything that doesn’t result in immediate gratification 

    With practice, patience can become a learned skill. Coaching can help you develop the self-awareness and emotional regulation skills you need to develop your frustration tolerance. Low frustration tolerance can be a symptom of several mental health conditions. Even on its own, LFT can have several negative effects.

    The negative effects of low frustration tolerance

    If life were easy and stress-free, LFT wouldn’t be a big deal. The fact is, life is filled with all kinds of stressors — minor or major. Our ability to respond to them determines our resilience, and in turn, our happiness. Poor frustration tolerance can result in:

    • Increased anxiety and depression
    • Lashing out at others or angry outbursts
    • Becoming withdrawn
    • Low internal locus of control and self-efficacy
    • Engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms, like excessive drinking or drug use

    If your outbursts or negative emotions are disruptive to yourself or others, you should speak to a mental health professional. Psychotherapy and cognitive reframing techniques are often successful in developing emotional regulation skills.

    people-waiting-in-line-low-frustration-tolerance

    How to develop frustration tolerance

    Working with a therapist is a great first step for developing frustration tolerance. They may work with a technique called rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). REBT was created by psychologist Albert Ellis in the 1950s. It helps you challenge self-defeating thoughts or irrational beliefs.

    Between sessions, here are 3 ways you can change your thought process and develop your frustration tolerance:

    1. Identify the causes 

    What situations or experiences tend to trigger your frustrations? Is it a certain situation, person, or experience? Once you identify your root causes, you can create a plan to deal with these triggers when they arise.

    2. Practice being frustrated

    When developing frustration tolerance strategies, the goal is to increase your capacity. It isn't to reduce the occurrence of frustrating situations. That means you should gradually increase your exposure to frustrating experiences.

    When you’re feeling calm (it won’t help to start in a high-stakes situation) try something mildly challenging. This could be waiting in line, solving a puzzle (try Quordle, that should do the trick), or putting together a piece of furniture. The idea is to take on tasks that will encourage you to practice your patience. It will give you a chance to notice your self-talk and reframe any negative thoughts that arise.

    3. Ask for help

    Finally, remember that even when you feel exasperated, you’re not alone. Chances are good that the world really isn’t out to get you. Whether you ask someone to help, vent, or challenge your thoughts with a coach, talking out your frustrations is a good idea.

    If your anger or low frustration tolerance is getting in your way, BetterUp can help. Our coaches help people develop their communication and emotional regulation skills. Learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings and minor setbacks can get you ready to take on bigger challenges in the future. It’s a skill that’s worth the wait.

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    Published August 30, 2022

    Allaya Cooks-Campbell

    BetterUp Staff Writer

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