Affect tolerance refers to an individual’s ability to effectively manage and cope with their emotions without becoming overwhelmed or reactive. It is the capacity to withstand and regulate intense emotional experiences, both positive and negative, in a balanced and healthy manner. Life comes at us in full force, igniting feeling affects. Life is a feeling experience. We naturally react to inner and outer experience. Feeling reactions are part of an adaptive process to successfully navigate the dynamic changing circumstances of life.
However, sensitivity to feeling affects varies across people, times, and circumstances. Some people are naturally more susceptible to overwhelm. Others hardly recognize the changing emotional landscape within their own bodies. Daniel Goleman wrote in his best selling book Emotional Intelligence that “at the extremes, this means that for some people emotional awareness is overwhelming, while for others it barely exists” (2005).
Affect tolerance refers to our ability to tolerate and regulate feeling affects without succumbing to overwhelm, reacting with maladaptive behaviors that damage futures and relationships.
T. Franklin Murphy explains, “too little sensitivity and we miss large swatches of the world within and the world without” (Murphy, 2023). Most of us experience feeling affects within a normal range, meaning we feel event and respond to adapt. Experiences vary along with our capabilities to process experiences. Some experiences overwhelm and other underwhelm.
A much higher percentage of individuals in hand to hand combat, during a bloody conflict, where survival is at risk, succumb to the high stress level and suffer either a short or long term maladaptive reaction. Low stress experiences typically demand much less emotional resources and most individuals manage these momentary frustration and move forward. Basically, on average, we can tolerate the arousal of affects for most day to day events.
Of course, as the level of stress increases, we begin to see a divide between those that effectively manage the stress and those that can’t.
What is High Affect Tolerance?
Individuals with high affect tolerance are often able to navigate through challenging situations without being significantly derailed by emotional responses. They tolerate a wide range of emotions without feeling overwhelmed or shutting down. This doesn’t mean they are emotionless, but rather that they either are naturally less sensitive to affect or they have developed strategies to cope with and regulate emotional experiences to keep feeling affects within a their individual window of tolerance. Typically, those that have high affect tolerance have a workable combination of natural disposition and effective regulation techniques.
We unconsciously appraise and affectively react to events. Irwin G. Sarason wrote, “two factors seemed to be important influences in the appraisal process: the general tendency to react with anxiety to problematic situations and coping styles” (1988).
Basically, the more sensitive we are to feeling affect, the more coping techniques we need to employ.
Empathy and Affect Tolerance
An important aspect of affect tolerance is we must first be able to tolerate our own feeling experiences before we can effective exercise empathy when dealing with the feeling experiences of others. Close contact with others naturally creates a passing on of emotions. In psychology we refer to this as emotional contagion. Ulla Holm and K. Aspegren wrote, “an important prerequisite for empathetic ability is affect tolerance, which requires awareness of one’s own feelings’ (1999).
Basically, if others’ emotions arouse strong emotions in us that we can’t tolerate, we find defensive mechanisms to intervene, and we disconnect from the emotion and the person expressing the emotion. Empathy deficit disorder may be closely associate with limited affect tolerance.
Why Do We Differ in Our Ability To Tolerate Feeling Affect?
Several theories revolve around the individual differences in arousal to experience. Certainty, much of personality differences can be attributed in arousal sensitivity. Those easily aroused tend to withdraw and exhibit an introverted approach to life. Other theories focus on brain mechanisms such as the Behavior Activation and Behavior inhibition systems.
Much of these individual characteristics are products of biological programming. They become the foundation and building blocks for all future development. We continue to develop, learning how to deal with our own emotional givens, throughout our lives in a reciprocal manner.
Emotion researchers suggest that “emotional sensitivity is determined by any variable that influences people’s initial emotional response to the situation, including qualities of the stimuli that people encounter (e.g., highly arousing stimuli are likely to trigger emotions more rapidly than mildly arousing stimuli), person characteristics (e.g., highly neurotic individuals may enter negative states more quickly than less neurotic individuals), and the broader situation (e.g., during an economic crisis, threatening thoughts may spring to mind more easily)” (Koole, Van Dillon, & Shepps, 2016).
A lot goes into the ultimate affect reaction to life. To improve our ability to respond more effectively, widening our window of tolerance, we must identify those areas within out realm of control.
Improving Affect Tolerance
Developing a healthy affect tolerance is important for overall well-being and effective functioning in various aspects of life. It allows individuals to experience and express emotions without being consumed by them, leading to better decision-making, improved relationships, and increased resilience in the face of adversity.
We improve our ability to manage affect through two approaches. First we minimize the things in our life that heighten stress. This may be unhealthy relationships, toxic home and work environments, over burdened finances, and dangerous surroundings. We should also identify the circumstances that tend to heighten stress and change the variables. This may include eliminating or reducing consumption of unhealthy or intoxicating substances, exercising, and all the other basics of wellbeing.
The other avenue we should explore is improving coping techniques, and building skills to better regulate emotions during those unplanned spikes of affect. A key element of healthy coping is building supportive relationships.
The Role of Healthy Relationships
In a recent book, the two directors of the Harvard longitude study, Robert J. Waldinger and Marc Schulz Ph.D., wrote that, “good relationships are significant enough that if we had to take all eighty-four years of the Harvard Study and boil it down to a single principle for living, one life investment that is supported by similar findings across a wide variety of other studies, it would be this: Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period” (Waldinger& Schulz, 2023).
Healthy relationships help steady our ship, provide extra resources for managing emotions (dyadic regulation), and allow us to work through problems with the secure knowledge that we will be caught if we fall.
Other Coping Behaviors
Some other coping behaviors to help regulate affect and increase our tolerance are:
Basically, we need avenues to break the chain of affect raising rumination. In states of high arousal, the chain of effects compound and increase in magnitude. Consequently, healthy coping mechanisms help slow the momentum, allowing us to regain our footing.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
Enhancing affect tolerance can be achieved through various techniques such as mindfulness practices, emotional regulation skills, stress management strategies, and seeking support from supportive others and trained professionals. Accordingly, managing affect, to keep it within our individual window of tolerance, is a skill that can be cultivated and developed over time with practice and self-awareness.
Goleman, Daniel (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Random House Publishing Group; 10th Anniversary edition.
Koole, Sander L.; Van Dillon, Lotte F.; Shepps, Gal (2016). The Self regulation of Emotion. In Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications. Editors Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeister. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition
Murphy, T. Franklin (2023). Emotional Sensitivity. Psychology Fanatic. Published 4-24-2023. Accessed 10-2-2023.
Sarason, Irwin G.(1988). Social Support, Personality, and Health. Editor Michel Pierre Janisee. in Individual Differences, Stress, and Health Psychology (Contributions to Psychology and Medicine). Springer; 1st edition
Waldinger, Robert J.; Schulz, Marc (2023). The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. Simon & Schuster.