Most of us have an intense fear of being uncomfortable. In fact, we are taught to fear discomfort from infancy. As babies, our expressions of discomfort are adaptive – they inform our caretakers when we need to be fed, changed, or put down for a nap. The scream is engineered to be heart-wrenching to adults, and thus a baby’s needs are usually met quickly and discomfort is relieved.
It’s no surprise, then, that we develop an aversion to discomfort as we grow up. Of course, exceedingly high levels of pain need to be addressed seriously, as they are our body’s way of communicating that something is awry.
However, why do we often go to such lengths to avoid (or immediately alleviate) those lower levels of discomfort? Learning to tolerate discomfort – to sit with it, to be curious about it, and to watch it pass organically – is a life-changing skill that warrants some practice. Consider the following types of discomfort and how they might actually work to improve your quality of life.
As a psychologist treating obesity, I work with patients who have developed such a fear of hunger that they eat when they feel the slightest twinge of emptiness in their bellies. They no longer remember what it’s like to feel hunger because eating has become so automatic.
Take comfort: If you want to lose weight, then experiencing some moderate hunger some of the time is a necessary part of the process. Physical hunger is usually a sign that your body is using more calories than you are providing it and therefore going into its “reserves” for energy. Guess what? That’s exactly what needs to happen for weight loss to occur. Dieters should actually take comfort in their experience of this moderate physical hunger – it means the process is working.
Feeling your heart rate soar, countering the resistance of a heavy weight, and noticing the burn of lactic acid build-up post-exercise can all be perceived as uncomfortable. For some people, the anticipation of this discomfort leads to exercise avoidance.
Take comfort: Whether you are exercising to improve your physique or to increase your endurance, you will only achieve your goals if your body is challenged beyond its normal state of functioning. If you feel as comfortable during exercise as you do lying on your couch, then you will likely not see the changes that you desire. Re-interpret discomfort during and after exercise as a sign that you are moving closer to your objective.
Losing a loved one (via death, divorce, or the dissolution of a relationship) is likely one of the most painful aspects of the human experience. The emotions experienced after such a loss – depression, anger, helplessness, loneliness – produce significant discomfort, and sometimes we turn toward unhealthy distractions (e.g., substance use, overeating) to temporarily escape our negative state of mind.
Take comfort: The intensity of emotion following a loss is usually proportionate to the degree of love and connectedness that characterized the relationship. If you had not developed a true and meaningful bond with the person whom you have lost, your pain would not be so great. You can view the negative feelings that accompany the loss as testament to the great gift that relationship provided you during a time in your life. If you re-interpret your feelings in this way, you will welcome them (rather than avoid them) and you retain control of your emotional state.
Finally, remember that most forms of discomfort are temporary. Approach discomfort as an opportunity for growth, change and improvement.