Frustration Tolerance and Its Role in Anger Arousal
Enhance your frustration tolerance and you diminish your propensity for anger.
Posted May 22, 2020
You needed to be at the office by 8 o’clock but instead you’re sitting in your car, stalled in traffic congestion due to unexpected construction.
Or perhaps you’re trying to assemble a bookcase believing it should be a simple task. Surprise! You realize you used the wrong screws in one section and now have to admit that it’s much more complicated than you thought.
It makes perfect sense that you might feel frustrated in these scenarios. But if that is your reaction, just how frustrated might you become? Might you, as the driver in the first scenario, hit your hand on the dashboard? Honk your horn? Squirm around in your seat? And if you were assembling that bookcase, might you quickly become angry toward the case, the instructions, the store, or with yourself?
Frustration involves a state of internal tension we experience when our goals, desires, or expectations are thwarted. While some might view frustration as just a low-level form of anger, it’s helpful to understand it as distinct from anger.
“Frustration tolerance” refers to our capacity to tolerate frustration, a competency that might vary from person to person. With a low tolerance, we’re quick to feel frustrated and feel it intensely. By contrast, some of us are able to live a life in accord with the old song, “Que sera, sera"—whatever will be, will be.
How much frustration tolerance do you have? And when frustrated, does it quickly yield to anger?
Anger is just one possible outcome of the internal tension associated with feelings of frustration. However, many individuals prone to anger rarely experience a distinct difference between these two experiences. This is because they often spontaneously move from frustration into anger arousal and expression without sufficiently pausing to recognize the inner tension of frustration.
However, anger is actually just one possible outcome of frustration. For example, the pressure of frustration may instead lead us to simply give up on achieving a goal. I’ve seen this evidenced in my practice, when individuals withdraw from an academic program, quit a job, or are quick to end a relationship.
And, all too often, it is low frustration tolerance that inhibits curiosity as well as our attempts to learn new skills even when we do have an interest in doing so. I’ve listened to hundreds of individuals whose low frustration tolerance, without full awareness, undermined their efforts to learn an instrument, play a board game, engage in physical exercise, or a variety of other activities.
Unfortunately, each time we simply give up in the face of frustration, we strengthen our tendency to give up. All too often, withdrawing in the face of frustration only reinforces a weakened sense of self, an internal script that we are inadequate. While this reaction may at times be a response to depression, when frequent and pervasive, it may contribute to depression.
When excessive and prolonged, frustration can also lead to and/or exacerbate physical symptoms such as digestive problems, migraines, cardiac events, or colitis. Additionally, frustration may be managed in ways that are self-destructive, i.e.: eating and weight problems, the abuse of alcohol or drugs, or addictive behaviors, all behaviors that may further exacerbate self-directed anger.
Factors that impact our frustration tolerance
Several factors potentially impact our tolerance for frustration and, ultimately just how prone we may be for anger arousal. These include:
Our early development
Frustration tolerance develops in the context of our successes in mastering challenges. It is grounded to some extent in our early support and encouragement when facing life challenges, both small and big. Such successes build upon each other and shape an overall sense of competence that can support us when frustrated. It is this competence, for example, that allows one child to reconstruct a sandcastle at the shore, when his first one was destroyed by an incoming wave–while another child gives up, sulks, and returns to the blanket.
Our frustration tolerance can be viewed as tension tolerance–our capacity to sit with and move past the tension that we experience in our bodies. In order to help children develop this competence, I’ve always advocated that parents present their child with challenges that reflect tolerable levels of frustration in the learning process. This is based on the idea that a child faced with an overwhelming challenge may be quick to shut down. Consequently, he may then become angry with himself, the challenge, or those presenting the challenge. By contrast, boredom or an overly inflated sense of self may result when tasks are made too easy, absent of even slight frustration.
Our capacity for frustration, like so much of our personality, is strongly influenced by our nature and our experiences. Some of us are born more “thin-skinned,” more physiologically reactive to emotional challenge, while others are “thick-skinned,” capable of being stimulated without overreacting to it. However, the influence of nurture, the experiences we have with others and ourselves, can have a softening impact that fosters a greater capacity for frustration tolerance.
Distortions of thinking
The tendency toward distortions of thinking can potentially heighten both the intensity and frequency of frustration. “Awfulizing” is one such distortion. This might involve self-talk such as, “I’ll never finish this!” “It’s much too hard for me!” “I’m just not bright enough!”—an internal dialogue that leads to exaggerating the difficulty of the challenge.
Vulnerability to experience frustration may be especially heightened when we rigidly maintain an internal script that things “should” be as we expect them to be. Such a filter may be applied to the world in general, others, and ourselves.
Attitudes of entitlement
Attitudes of entitlement are similarly associated both with quickness to experience frustration as well as anger arousal. It is associated with trait anger (an ongoing predisposition toward anger arousal) as well as state anger (a more situational response) (Filippello, Harrington, and Buzzai, et. al., 2014) As such, with and without full awareness, we just assume that the world and people, in general, should treat us in a specific way because we perceive ourselves as being special.
It is one thing to feel deserving of good fortune and treatment. It is quite another to expect it. And some maintain these expectations in an effort to boost an underlying sense of being inadequate, flawed, or weak.
Rigidity of expectations
Flexibility in our thinking and emotions help buoy our resilience to frustration (See my post of January 31, 2020). By contrast, rigidly holding onto expectations is a formula for the arousal of frustration and the tension that accompanies it. Knowing when to let go of or adjust our expectations makes all the difference in determining frustration or anger.
Low distress tolerance
“Distress tolerance” is a term used in research that reflects an individual’s capability to experience and endure negative emotional states. Having a low distress tolerance has been found to prime us for frustration. As an example, one study of 769 college students found that hurried driving was associated with lower levels of distress tolerance (Beck, Kenneth, Daughters, et. al, 2012). Hurried driving included driver anger as well as aggressive and risky driving.
Distress tolerance is an important component of what is described as “emotional intelligence.” Research over several decades has better identified how such competency can be learned, in an effort to boost our capacity for emotional regulation.
All too often, we tend to expect ourselves to have certain skills although we may never have had formal instruction on learning them. I’ve observed this to be the case in elementary school children who were never taught how to study, in parents who never read a book or attended classes in parenting, and in administrators who never learned how to manage people. Being open to learning new skills is a major antidote for enhancing our frustration tolerance.
Difficulty with letting go of anger about past events can contribute to ongoing rumination about those events. This is often revealed in self-talk that focuses on past grievances–including alternative responses that could have been made as well as acts of retaliation. Such thoughts can prime us for low frustration tolerance (Cruz & Sofia, 2017).
Having a low tolerance for frustration is not simply a permanent character flaw. Rather, it reflects an absence of skill development that allows us to more effectively sit with strong negative emotions and the lack of self-awareness of distortions in thinking. It is a challenge that can be addressed by developing increased self-awareness, self-compassion, mindfulness, and the patience and commitment to learning to pause when we do become frustrated.
And even when we experience frustration, it’s helpful to remember—it can lead to positive outcomes that move us toward new learning, innovation, or even anger that is expressed in an assertive manner. When this happens, we can become more resilient when facing life’s challenges–including traffic congestion and assembling a bookcase.
Fillippello, P, Harrington, N., Buzzai, C., et. al. (2014) The relationship between frustration intolerance, unhealthy emotions, and assertive behavior in Italian students Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 32(4), 257-278.
Beck, K., Daughers, S., and Ali, B. (2013) Hurried driving: Relationship to distress tolerance, driver anger, aggressive and risky driving in college students. Accident Analysis and Prevention, Vol. 51, March, 51-55.
Hennessy, D. (2017) The role of anger rumination in the frustration-aggression link. In Cruz, F. and Sofia, M. Psychology of emotions, motivations and actions. Anger and anxiety: Predictors, coping strategies and health effects. Nova Science Publishers, 201-205.