Low Frustration Tolerance and How to Deal with It

Low Frustration Tolerance and How to Deal with It

“There is no law which says that things have to be the way I want. It’s disappointing when they are not, but I can stand it — especially if I avoid awfulizing about frustration and demanding that it not happen.”

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. Road rage would be an everyday example. Rudeness, too, although that has other sources.

Low Frustration Tolerance, or LFT, is really all about resiliency. I learned this the hard way in my 50s when dealing with graduate school at an older age. I am still learning (“Ancaro Imparo,” said Da Vinci) and am still trying to deal with it all. Imagine being in your 80s or 90s and having to deal with the ultimate frustration: death. How will your LFT help you then? Answer: it won’t, so let’s talk about reducing it now (or, more properly stated, about increasing your tolerance).

This piece will deal with some coping strategies and admittedly CBT[1]-based techniques to help you overcome LFT.  I begin (and end) with a review of what Albert Ellis, the great psychotherapist, had to say about LFT, move into alternative responses (not reactions – there is a difference), and end (as I said) with a review of what Ellis called the 12 Major Distortions.

Albert Ellis invented what he called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, in part to help his clients deal with LFT. One of the by-products of REBT was the ability to self-diagnose (and self-analyze) when LFT occurs, and to develop the ability self-dispute what we call the “cognitive distortions” we engage in.  See my post about cognitive distortions at www.jvrusso.com.

In the meantime, know that the good news is that 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?  How can you increase your ability to deal with stressors, irritants and frustration without blowing your cool? I hope this article helps!

  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.  But consider the African who must sometimes walk several miles to get to a place where they must wait even longer for service. The 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 American may stand in line thinking:

  • “This is ridiculous.” (candidly, as taxpayers, some lines are downright immoral, but they exist regardless of what we think about their inherent inefficiency)
  • “I don’t have time for this.”
  • “They should have more staff to handle this.” (Again, as taxpayers we GET to think this, but what can YOU do about it, in the moment?)
  • “It shouldn’t take this long to deposit a check.”

In Africa, where people must walk long distances 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 result in different emotional responses. 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 friend or significant other doesn’t always tune you out when you are talking), then your frustration may be unwarranted (he or she may 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 extreme language. Words like “must” “can’t” “should” “have to” “always” “never,” and other inflammatory language are examples of “extremes.” And remember: we strive to never “should” on ourselves.

Irrational Belief Rational Belief
I can’t take this. The fact is, you can take this. You will not die or go insane from standing in line or getting stuck in traffic. You can take it. 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 an everyday frustration?  If it really is too much, leave and come back when it is less crowded or you have more time. If it must 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, decide (choose!) 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. Is it that 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 pleasure too.  It may be.  It may not be.  But make a conscious choice, do the benefits calculation, then take responsibility for it.

Let’s say you hate driving in rush hour traffic.  So, you might choose to ride the bus to work rather than drive.  It takes about 30 minutes longer each way, but you could use that time to catch up on your reading and arrive at your office refreshed and calm, rather than stressed from driving down the highway at rush hour. However, there may be times when you 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 You’ll have to fight your way through.  Either way, you have made a conscious choice and understand that you cannot, ever, have it both ways.

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.


  1. 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 kid’s, your husband’s, or your wife’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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Try to carry a book or magazine. Better yet, get a Kindle.  Personal disclosure: Being somewhat 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!)  I know someone (not me), who, when he gets trapped somewhere (rush hour traffic, a long line, a late appointment, etc.), uses that time and opportunity to catch up on his reading, email, and other work.  This serves two purposes:

  1. The time doesn’t feel wasted;
  2. It keeps him amused and out of trouble;
  3. He feels as if he has accomplished something when he finishes reading a book that would otherwise have piled up on his bed stand; and,
  4. He doesn’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, together, can make your life more peaceful and your world a little calmer.

How to raise your tolerance for frustration

Know when you are engaging in LFT behavior. Keep a log of such behavior for several weeks or longer. Watch for things like overusing drugs or alcohol, compulsive gambling, shopping, exercising, or bingeing on food, losing your temper.

The technique of exposure is an important way to increase your tolerance. Make a list of things to which you typically overreact – situations, events, risks and so on. Commit yourself to face at least one of these each day. Instead of trying to get away from the frustration as you normally would, stay with the frustration until it diminishes of its own accord. You might, for instance, go without desserts for a while, have two beers instead of four, leave the children’s toys on the floor, or the like.

Another useful technique is rational self-analysis. This amounts to analyzing your frustration – while you are feeling it (if that is at all possible) by trying to step outside of yourself and looking back inside. What are the causes, what is your feeling and where are you feeling it in your body. If it is not easy to do in the moment, do the analysis as soon as possible afterwards. Other techniques you may find helpful are rational cards, the catastrophe scale, reframing, and a benefits calculation.

Rational Cards

After disputing a self-defeating belief, take a small card and write the old belief on the top and the new belief at the bottom. Carry the card with you for a week or so, and take it out of your pocket or purse and read it eight to ten times a day. This will take less than thirty seconds each time, but the repetition can be very productive for establishing a new rational belief. Don’t be misled by the simplicity of this technique – it can be surprisingly effective. Note that a new thought requires daily practice for about twenty-one days before it becomes a habit, so refer to the card at least once a day for a few more weeks.

Catastrophe Scale

This is a technique to get things back into perspective when you find yourself awfulizing. On a sheet of paper draw a line down one side. Put 100% at the top, 0% at the bottom, and fill in the rest at 10% intervals. At each level, write in something you think could legitimately be rated at that level. You might, for example, put 0% – ‘Having a quiet cup of coffee at home’, 20% – ‘Having to mow the lawns when baseball is on television’, 70% – being burgled, 90% – being diagnosed with cancer, 100% – being burned alive, and so on. Whenever you are upset about something, ascertain what rating you are (subconsciously) giving it and pencil it on your chart. Then see how it compares to the items already there. Usually what happens is that you will realize you have been exaggerating the badness involved. Move the item down the list until you feel it is in perspective. Keep the chart and add to it from time to time.


This is another strategy for getting bad events into perspective. One way to reframe events is to reevaluate them as ‘disappointing’, ‘concerning’, or ‘uncomfortable’ rather than ‘awful’ or ‘unbearable’. Another way is to see that even negative events almost always have a positive side to them, listing all the positives you can think of.

Benefits Calculation

This is a way to break through decision-making blocks. It is based on the principle that we are likely to be happiest when our decisions take into account both the desirability of getting enjoyment now, and continuing to get it in the future. To carry out a calculation, list all the factors that seem relevant to the decision. Include the likelihood of short- and long-term consequences for each factor. Decide how much value or benefit each item has to you, negatively or positively, then add up the pro’s and con’s.

The Albert Ellis 12 Typical Irrational Beliefs and Disputing Statements

I want to end this piece with a second look at Albert Ellis and his 12 typical irrational beliefs, most of which, or any of which, are what bring clients in to see a counselor. By understanding them, you too can be a counselor to yourself. And thereby save a lot of money!

(review and think about these…)

1. The idea that it is a dire necessity for adults to be loved by significant others for almost everything they do… … instead of their concentrating on their own self-respect, on winning approval for practical purposes, and on loving rather than on being loved.
2. The idea that certain acts are awful or wicked, and that people who perform such acts should be severely damned… … instead of the idea that certain acts are self-defeating or antisocial, and that people who perform such acts are behaving stupidly, ignorantly, or neurotically, and would be better helped to change.  People’s poor behaviors do not make them rotten individuals.
3. The idea that it is horrible when things are not the way we like them to be… … instead of the idea that it is too bad, that we had better try to change or control bad conditions so that they become more satisfactory, and, if that is not possible, we had better temporarily accept and gracefully lump their existence.
4. The idea that human misery is invariably externally caused and is forced on us by outside people and events… … instead of the idea that neurosis is largely caused by the view that we take of unfortunate conditions.
5. The idea that if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome we should be terribly upset and endlessly obsess about it… … instead of the idea that one had better frankly face it and render it non-dangerous, and, when that is not possible, accept the inevitable.
6. The idea that it is easier to avoid than to face life difficulties and self-responsibilities… … instead of the idea that the so-called easy way is usually much harder in the long run.
7. The idea that we absolutely need something other or stronger or greater than ourself on which to rely… … instead of the idea that it is better to take the risks of thinking and acting less dependently.
8. The idea that we should be thoroughly competent, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects… … instead of the idea that we would prefer to do well rather than always need to do well, and accept our self as a quite imperfect creature, who has general human limitations and specific fallibilities.
9. The idea that because something once strongly affected our life, it should indefinitely affect it… … instead of the idea that we can learn from our past experiences but not be overly-attached to or prejudiced by them.
10. The idea that we must have certain and perfect control over things… … instead of the idea that the world is full of improbability and chance and that we can still enjoy life despite this.
11. The idea that human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction… … instead of the idea that we tend to be happiest when we are vitally absorbed in creative pursuits, or when we are devoting ourselves to people or projects outside ourselves.
12. The idea that we have virtually no control over our emotions and that we cannot help feeling disturbed about things… … instead of the idea that we have real control over our destructive emotions – if we choose to work at changing the “musturbatory” hypotheses which we often employ to create them.

CBT = Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a four-letter word to some therapists, who believe that it over-simplifies what are otherwise very human reactions. But CBT is evidence-based and it works (for most people in distress, anyway).

About Dr Joseph Russo

Born and raised in Woodland Hills, California; now residing in Laramie, Wyoming (or "Laradise" as we call it, for good reason), with my wife Cindy, our little schnauzer, Macy Mae, and a cat named Markie. I hold a BBA from Cal State Northridge and an MBA from the University of Nevada at Reno. My first career was in business, for some 25+ years. In 2007, I shifted gears and entered the helping professions as a mental health counselor. I earned an MA in Educational Psychology and a Doctorate (PhD) in Counselor Education and Supervision. In my spare time I enjoy mentoring young and not-so-young business and non-profit executives as they go about growing their businesses and presence. I also teach part-time at the University of Wyoming, in both the Colleges of Education and Business.
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One Response to Low Frustration Tolerance and How to Deal with It

  1. Cindy Brock says:

    Thanks, Joe! I find this very helpful!

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