Distress Tolerance: When Your Pot Boils Over

boiling pot

Have you ever found yourself in frustrating situation in which your reaction was bigger or harsher than the situation deserved and wondered later why you acted that way? Me too.

You all know those people, they are seemingly unflappable and cool as cucumbers, they seem to handle their children in public situations with ease, navigate a new city with excitement, or manage their homes without getting stressed about the mess. Their internal thermometer for handling stress seems to be higher, meaning they handle stress-environmental and internal-without getting stressed out. They seem to be able to navigate through stressful situations without their anxiety rising, or at least on the outside appearing to have everything together.

Imagine a pot boiling water on the stove. The chef needs to leave room in the pot to allow the water to rise or else it will boil over. The water needs room to expand from the heat put under it; it can take the heat but it needs room to process the heat. If there’s too much water in the pot, when its put over heat it will boil over the sides of the pot, causing burning or a big mess, and ultimately resulting in the water inside the pot being depleted.

Each of us has an internal stress level, some can handle more stress without it causing them to boil over than others. For some people it’s their temperament that allows them to be more calm. Other factors like environmental stress, grief, loss, hunger, exhaustion, or children can all contribute to a higher stress level (I’m only half kidding about that last one). My husband, for instance, is very even keeled. He doesn’t get anxious at certain situations that cause me to have a meltdown in public. He’s just built less emotionally reactive than I am.

There was a time in my life very recently where I felt like I was a pot constantly boiling over. I was overwhelmed with circumstances in my life, had a level of accumulated stress that I couldn’t seem to heal from, and was exhausted by activities of daily life. I felt out of control and my level of “distress tolerance” was very low. Every little thing seemed like a big deal. I was physically exhausted, emotionally fragile, in a perpetual state of stress. I just couldn’t get room in my pot to allow the water to boil without boiling over. I was in a constant state of “boil over”.

If you ever find yourself in this place, its important to note that this is actually a state of crisis for your brain. There are different theories on this and science to back it up (it has to do with the amygdala and frontal cortex but there’s books that talk about that!). Basically you have a logical, calm, reasonable part of your brain. And you have an emotional and reactive part of your brain. They both need to work together in order to stay in the middle rational part of your brain; some therapists call it the wise brain. If you’re too far in the logical part of your brain all the time, you can’t connect with or relate to people and you’re overly rational (yes, its a thing!). If you’re too far in the emotional part of your brain you can get lost in anxiety and be completely irrational.

When you’re using your wise brain you operate using your logical, rational part of your brain to direct your emotional response to situations. You’re not so irrational that you don’t feel anything, but you’re not out of control emotionally. You control your reactions and respond rather than react to things that happen.

When you get in the state of “over boil” or “flipping your lid”, when you can’t contain your emotional reaction, you are out of control. Everyone does this at some point, but you don’t want to stay in that state, you want to go back to operating out of your wise brain. People who have a higher distress tolerance are able to operate in their wise brain more of the time than someone who has a lower distress tolerance.

So what happens if you’re more of an emotionally reactive person, or if you find yourself in a constant state of boiling over?

1-Control what you can control in your immediate environment.

I recently realized that I was feeling stressed out in my home. It was constantly messy yet I avoided dealing with the mess because it felt overwhelming. Then I realized that my immediate environment was contributing to my stress and feelings of overwhelm, but that was something I had control of. Well, I still had 3 small children to deal with but I could control a lot more than I admitted to myself! I made a commitment to do certain tasks everyday before bed that would help keep the house tidy and help me feel better in the morning. You know what? This worked! As soon as I got into a consistent routine of taking care of some specific household duties before bed instead of brushing them off because I was too tired, I immediately felt a decrease of my stress level in the morning.

There are things that you can control about your environment. Control those things. If it feels too overwhelming, just choose 3 simple things you can do everyday to help you feel better about your immediate environment.

2-Pay attention to how you feel physically

When I find myself getting stressed out at home with my kids, I take a moment to check in with my physical sensations. Sometimes I realize there’s too much noise in the house. The music I put on to soothe us has actually now become a background noise that’s no longer soothing. Maybe my sweater is actually itchy and irritating me. Or maybe I notice I’ve been so busy I haven’t taken time to use the restroom or get a glass of water. Those are things that were irritating me and causing my internal stress level to rise yet I was too distracted or busy to notice.

Stop and do a physical inventory. What is going on physically and what can you do to care for yourself in that moment?


When’s the last time you created a “play” experience for yourself? In other words, when’s the last time that you did something fun that you enjoy doing? Did you get out of the house with a friend for coffee, have a date night, enjoy a hobby, play and giggle with your kids? This isn’t something that always comes naturally to us as we get busy with life, especially navigating life overseas it can be harder to create those opportunities for ourselves. It’s something we need to intentionally do to create more internal space.

When I take time for something I enjoy, even for a few moments here or there or to make time for a special event, I find that it helps me feel physically as well as emotionally less stressed. Just as sleep is important for our bodies, play actually allows our brains to rest.


Physical exercise is one of the best ways to care for not only your body but also your brain. It’s science. It actually has a chemical reaction in your brain that helps you feel better emotionally and helps you think more clearly. It also helps you sleep better; during sleep your brain actually organizes itself, pathways connect, and cells regenerate. The idea behind the “runners high” is actually true; the chemical reaction that happens in your brain because of exercise helps you feel better in the short term and your body work better in the long term.

6- Inventory your accumulated stress

The topic of accumulated stress deserves more attention, but briefly: small stressors or loss over a period of time, if undealt with, actually add up to big emotional stress. You may not recognize it because the stressor has been going on for a long time or some things happened long ago, but it may possibly be something that’s actually contributing to your stress now. It takes time to unpack that, but ask yourself what you can do to resolve the situation or deal with things now in a healthy way. What are the things you can control now that will help you process that stress or loss?

There was an unresolved conflict in a particular relationship for years that caused me great stress. I knew the stress was there but I didn’t know what I could do about it. Eventually something drastic happened that was a catalyst for change, but looking back on it now I wonder what I could have done to change things. The biggest thing that comes to mind is that I wish I had sought professional help sooner.

7-Seek professional help

If you discover that you’re in a constant state of stress and your pot is boiling over more often than you’d like, see a professional therapist who can help you. Sometimes just having someone to talk to, an unbiased party, is one of the biggest factors in recovery. Chances are if you have accumulated stress in your life you don’t feel you can talk to anyone safely about it and a skilled therapist is someone you can talk to.

When I was in that state of “over boil”, it was one of the most impactful things I did for myself in my recovery process. It took time to unpack everything I brought with me into that therapy room, but going to my sessions on a regular basis helped decrease my stress enough that I had room to sort everything out. What it did was give me space. I got to talk about the things that were going on, I got to be emotional in a safe space, I got help accessing my logical brain for areas I was stuck in my irrational brain, and then I could sort out the different layers of what had happened.

All of these techniques help your brain get out of crisis and perhaps get a little less stuck in the “over boil”. Once you’re out of crisis you can start to process the things that contributed to that stress on a deeper level and gain more wholeness and health.


Have these techniques helped you? I’d love to hear about it! Please leave me a comment let me know!

2 thoughts on “Distress Tolerance: When Your Pot Boils Over

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