Strategies to Help You Deal with Low Frustration Tolerance

Having "low frustration tolerance" is often a factor in creating stress and can lead to anger and rage.  The good news is frustration tolerance can be increased by simply changing the way you think about things.  What is low frustration tolerance and how can you work to address it?

Low frustration tolerance is just what it sounds like.  You do not tolerate even the most minor frustrations well.  You are easily irritated.  You have a short fuse.  Some people with low frustration tolerance seethe quietly, some explode verbally, and some resort to physical violence when provoked. 

How can you increase your ability to deal with stressors, irritants and frustration without blowing your cool?

1.  Realize It’s All in Your Head

When the irritation happens and before you lose your cool, you have a thought or harbor some belief which either lowers or increases your frustration.  What are some examples?  Imagine being stuck in a long bank line for 45 minutes.  Most Americans would become agitated and restless.  Some will blow a fuse.  Yet an African might be very pleased to stand in a long line.  The line and the wait time are the same.  Why the difference?   Because of the beliefs they hold about standing in the line.

An America may stand in the line thinking:

"This is ridiculous."
"I don’t have time for this."
"They should have more staff to handle this."
"It shouldn’t take this long to deposit a check."

A student in one of my classes pointed out that in an African country where people have to walk long ways to get from place to place, waiting in a line is viewed as a good thing.  They consider it an opportunity to rest. 

These two different viewpoints about standing in a line for 45 minutes cause different feelings.  If you believe you shouldn’t have to wait 45 minutes, you get irritated.  If you believe this is a rare opportunity to rest, you feel relieved and happy. 

Now consider situations which irritate or annoy you.  Look at some of the thinking which may be causing you to be more irritated or frustrated that the situation warrants.  Here are some examples:

  • "I can’t take this."
  • "This is too much."
  • "I can’t wait that long."
  • "It shouldn’t be this way."
  • "It shouldn’t be this difficult (or complicated)."
  • "I should always be happy and content."
  • "Things must go my way, and I can’t stand it when they don’t."
  • "I can’t stand being frustrated, so I must avoid it at all costs."
  • "Other people should stop doing things which annoy me."

Why is it important to listen to what you are thinking?  Because you can change what you are thinking.  As the example of waiting in a line shows above, if you change your view of what is happening, you can change how you feel about it.  If you can tune in to what is going on in your head you can rewrite the script.  A large part of feeling frustrated comes from feeling helpless.  Realizing you aren’t completely helpless decreasing the frustration. 

It can also be the case that what you are thinking is incorrect.  If you have inaccurate beliefs (i.e. your husband doesn’t always tune you out when you are talking) then your frustration may be unwarranted (he may actually be listening to you this time).  If so, challenging the validity of the belief can challenge the frustration that results from it.  The scene that used to make you blow might now have no effect at all, or it may even make you laugh. 

Hint:  Be on the lookout for words like "must", "can’t", "should", "have to", "always", "never" and other inflammatory language. 

Irrational Belief Rational Belief
I can’t take this. You can take this.  You will not die or go insane from standing in line or getting stuck in traffic.  You can take it.  But you have a choice about how you take it.  You can spend the next hour having a conniption fit and raising your blood pressure several points or you can spend it listening to music, catching up on calls, or reading a book.  Your choice. 
This is too much.

Too much what?  Stress?  If it is too much stress, remove yourself from it and regroup before you blow your top. 

If it is too much inconvenience, frustration or annoyance, ask yourself, is it really too much? 

Let’s say you’ve been standing in line at the DMV for four hours trying to get your license.  Ask yourself, is it too much of a frustration, or merely a frustration?  If it really is too much, leave and come back when it is less crowded or you have more time.  If it has to be renewed today, weigh the cost of getting a ticket for driving without a license.  Is it still too much of a frustration?  Or does the danger of a ticket outweigh it?  If the benefit of driving legally outweighs the frustration required to get the license, make a decision about how to pass the time in a productive manner. 

If you are standing in line for concert tickets, is it too much frustration, or is it worth it to go to the concert?  Realize you have choices.  You don’t have to stand there, you choose to.  You have something to gain from tolerating this frustration, whether it be concert tickets or a renewed license.

I can’t wait that long. You can’t wait that long, or you simply don’t want to wait that long?   There is a difference.  If you truly cannot wait that long, leave and plan to come back when you have time to wait.  If you don’t want to wait that long, make a choice.  Is waiting worth it or not?    
It shouldn’t be this way. But it is this way.   Now what?  You cannot change the situation, but you can choose how you react to it. 
It shouldn’t be this difficult (or complicated). But it is this difficult (or complicated).   Now what?  Deal with the reality of the situation instead of some ideal situation that you have created in your head.  Let’s say you are trying to complete your income tax return.  It is difficult.  It is complicated.  You are not a numbers person and forms are not  your forte either.  You do not have the power to change the difficulty and complexity of the required procedure.  Do you want to spend your time and energy ranting about it?  Do you want to hire someone else to deal with it?  Or do you want to do it yourself and get it over with so you can get back to doing what you enjoy?  Choose how will you deal with it.
I should always be happy and content. You should?  Or what?  Your head will explode?  Where is that written?  Is that true for everyone else?  If not, why should it be so for you?  Perhaps you would like to be happy and content all the time, but is that realistic?  No. 
Things must go my way and I can’t stand it if they don’t. Things can’t go everyone’s way all the time.  That’s simply impossible.  We can’t all be first in line at the DMV.  So what are you going to do when it’s not your turn for things to go your way?
I can’t stand being frustrated, I must avoid it all costs.

Then do so.  But make a list of what you will lose out on if you do this.  Then decide if it’s worth avoiding the frustration to avoid the pleasaure too.  It may be.  It may not be.  But make a conscious choice, then take responsibility for it

I hate driving in rush hour traffic.  So I choose to ride the bus to work rather than drive.  It takes about 30 minutes longer each way, but I use that time to catch up on my reading and arrive at my office refreshed and calm, rather than stressed from driving down I-35 at rush hour.  I am happy with that choice.  However, I sometimes choose to drive in rush hour in order to be able to accomplish errands at lunch or attend a performance downtown that evening.  Then the convenience of completing the errands or the pleasure of attending the performance outweigh the frustration of the traffic I have to fight my way through.  Either way, I have made a conscious choice and I’m am happy with it.

Other people should stop doing things which annoy me.

Or what?  You have no control over other people. Only yourself.  You cannot control what other people do.  You can only control how you react to it.  Stop letting other people control your day and your emotions. 


2.  Expose Yourself

Another way to increase your tolerance for frustration is to gradually expose yourself to frustrating situations.  Make a list of situations in which you tend to lose your cool or overreact.  Commit yourself to face at least one of these each day or each week, depending upon the severity of the frustration.  If it is rush hour traffic, once per day may be too much too often.  If it is waiting in line for coffee, once per morning might be tolerable.  If you can stand your husband’s dirty clothes on the floor, try to go a day without picking them up, then two days, then three, etc.  Try to increase your tolerance slowly.

3.  Rate It

Sometimes rating the frustration puts it into context.  If you are thinking, "This is terrible!"  Ask yourself, "How terrible is it?  As bad as a root canal?  An auto accident?  Being fired?  Getting divorced?"  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst you can imagine, how terrible is it?  Putting it next to other things you have experienced in life may cause you to realize that waiting 30 minutes for lunch during the lunch hour rush may not be the worst thing that ever happened to you. 

4.  Develop Skills

Developing skills for helping you handle stressful events can help you weather them with more grace.  Figure out what your issues are when you get frustrated.  Is it that you feel trapped?  Powerless?  Bored?  Pressured for time?  Inconvenienced?  Discounted?  Then figure out how to do something which eliminates that feeling. 

I try to carry a book or magazine with me.  Being of German descent, the idea of "wasting time" is a real frustration provoker.   (I think Germans have special genes which make "waste" and "inefficiency" especially intolerable!)  When I get trapped somewhere (rush hour traffic, a long line, a late appointment, etc.) I catch up on my reading.  This serves two purposes:  1) the time doesn’t feel wasted, 2) it keeps me amused and out of trouble, 3) I feel I accomplished something when I finish reading a book that would otherwise have piled up on my bedstand and 4) I don’t feel so much at the mercy of life’s little calamities.  

Making active choices instead of merely reacting can greatly decrease your feelings of stress and frustration and give you a better sense of control over your life.  Working to increase your tolerance for frustrations which cannot be otherwise avoided will help you feel more confident and competent in your ability to handle annoyances.  Both of these together can make your life more peaceful and your world a little calmer.

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  1. Great post Kellen,

    I like how you identified 'Other people annoy me', and what you say is absolutely true. We have no control whatsoever over what 'other people' do or say, yet we can get so caught up in what they are doing or saying (or not) that we lose the ability to effectively manage our own lives. For some, it can be hard to imagine that someone else is not intentionally doing something just to annoy them personally. But in reality, we're not that special, we just happened to be nearby.

    Thanks for the helpful suggestions.


  2. This is an awesome post.

    Plus, sometimes you can get creative if you have to…

    Once time I purchased an old Mercedes. The police officer who was to validate the VIN insisted that the number '1' was an 'I'. He was right. It was, in fact, to my way of seeing it, an 'I'. So I changed the verification form to a 'I' to comply with the police officer. It subsequently failed inside the DMV office because the history on the vehicle had been documented throughout its history with a 1. This went back and forth several times between the police officer and the DMV attendant, and neither would talk to the other, neither would budge. The car had been forever wretched from its own, long history, forever suspended in very near-earth orbit.

    Finally, I left and went to another DMV office down the road.

    They didn't even ask for a police check on the VIN!

    when I got my use out of it, and it finally gave out altogether, I had it towed to the salvage yard. Nobody cared if it was I or 1.

    It was just junk.