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“We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Anaïs Nin

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Understanding and Managing Distress Tolerance and Emotion Regulation in STEM

I believe that the primary aspects of well-being that are overlooked when understanding working in science fields are the roles of distress tolerance and emotion regulation among the scientists. For various reasons, the work is often stressful and causes distress, to which people react differently. Stress is an adaptive response to external or internal stressors; distress is the experience of a strong emotional state when one struggles to adapt to stress in a manageable way.


Emotion regulation is like long-term distress tolerance, or how we manage our emotions on a day-to-day basis. When we lack the skill set to manage strong feelings, we may engage in unhelpful behaviors that impact our mental health state and our relationships with others, such as becoming enraged, yelling at others, withdrawing, etc. As scientists, we have likely observed the impact of distress intolerance and emotion dysregulation in ourselves and in others that has resulted in a work environment that felt psychologically unsafe. We may have experienced the lasting impact on collaborations or relationships with mentors or mentees.


The impact of distress intolerance and emotion dysregulation can be amplified in certain environments, such as during field work, in field camps, on research vessels, etc. People may not be able to retreat into privacy to recover from a stressful situation (like field equipment breaking); there may be limited support for those with mental health vulnerabilities or stressful interpersonal situations that one cannot escape. I believe that one of the barriers to inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility efforts is a limited understanding of how to create psychological safety for ourselves and others, such as addressing distress intolerance and emotional dysregulation in the scientific work realm. Anyone can develop the skills to work on distress tolerance and emotion regulation. Here, I will share the basics of distress tolerance and emotion regulation, including skills for self-regulation and respectfully supporting others who are dysregulated in the lab or field space.

The mental health information below is part of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (pioneered by Linehan) and I pulled much of this information from Mind My Peelings

Dysregulation - when the response is disproportionate or inappropriate given the event.

Can show up as distress or emotion dysregulation.



- experiencing strong unpleasant emotions (sadness, anger, anxiety, frustration, etc)

- can feel intolerable

- often short-lived, in the moment

- also shows up as: shutting down, withdrawing, dissociating

Distress Intolerance

A perceived inability to:

1. Fully experience unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions OR

2. Manage strong emotions

Emotion Dysregulation

- Emotion regulation -- how we manage emotions in our day-to-day lives (longer term than distress)

- Emotion dysregulation -- inability to regulate emotional responses to provocative stimuli

- Emotions fluctuate quickly (not due to mental illness)


Understand your vulnerabilities

- Vulnerabilities make us susceptible to becoming dysregulated

- Improved self-regulation starts with identifying and managing vulnerabilities

- There are short and long-term vulnerabilities

Short term vulnerabilities

- experiencing illness or injury, recent fight with someone, recent bad news or loss, financial issues, etc

- experiencing H.A.L.T. -- Hungry Angry Lonely Tired


Long term vulnerabilities (usually complex origins)

- trauma (childhood or adulthood, single or ongoing events, discrimination, intergenerational)

- mental health issues (anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc)

- attachment wounding (growing up in an invalidating or otherwise abusive household)

sky and grass

Dysregulated - Exit window of tolerance

Our window of tolerance (see Dr. Dan Siegel's work) is our optimal zone of emotional arousal.


When in our window of tolerance, we feel balanced and have  calm state of mind, function most effectively, can self-regulate our emotions, feel relaxed and in control, can generally take what life throws at you.

Window of Tolerance

What contributes to exiting our window of tolerance?

- might inherently struggle to stay in window of tolerance due to vulnerabilities (trauma, mental health issues, attachment wounding, etc)

- then events occur (like extreme stress)

- next, the nervous system acts defensively (fight/flight/freeze/collapse/submit) to events to seek safety

- then, extreme events remain with our nervous system long after the event has ended

- a result can be that additional stress or anxiety automatically trigger defense responses. The nervous system believes past stressful event(s) is reoccurring.

Exiting the window of tolerance (dysregulation) leads to hyperarousal or hypoarousal.

The following imaged was adapted from

window of tolerance

The blue wavy line represents the ups and downs of emotions that we experience with life, but it lies withing our window of tolerance.

If we struggle to cope when a stressful event occurs (red lightning bolt), we may exit our window out the top, become dysregulated, and hyperaroused and overwhelmed. We may exit out the bottom, become dysregulated, and hypoaroused and overwhelmed.


- experience excessive activation, fight or flight

- difficulty managing emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, etc, and become hypervigilant or defensive

- may become more sensitive or overly responsive to daily life occurrences

- develop sleep or eating issues, difficulty problem solving and concentrating

- mind is stuck "on", overthinking

- might engage in unhelpful behaviors like, hostility and rage, yelling/snapping at others, taking things personally, misreading situations, "blowing up" relationships/jobs/etc


- experience foggy brain, freeze or collapse

- numbness, dissociate, emotionally flat, no energy, poor sleep and appetite

- can't think or respond, hard time processing thoughts/emotions, indecisive

- shame, hard to do anything

- mind is stuck "off"

- might engage in unhelpful behaviors like, not completing tasks, disengaged, disconnected, being stuck/frozen, being on autopilot

When in hypo- or hyperarousal, we often engage in cognitive distortions

Cognitiv distortions

- Stuck in negative, irrational thought patterns -- exaggerate or inaccurately perceive reality in an unhealthy way.

- Can damage mental health and relationships.

Common cognitive distortions

overgeneralization, personalization, blaming, should-ing, black/white thinking, mental filtering (focusing on negative & excluding the positive), emotional reasoning (believing feelings are facts), catastrophizing, always needing to be right (even when you're not), jumping to conclusions (includes mind reading and fortune telling), change fallacy (others should change to suit my needs), fairness fallacy (all things should be fair)

Pathway of how events impact our behaviors

negative event occurs --> stimulates our thoughts, ruminations -->

impacts our emotions --> motivates our behaviors

We can intervene our ourselves by changing our thoughts & ruminations. With ruminations, our brain is trying to "solve" something by continuously chewing on something that occurred. Here is one approach when engaging in cognitive distortions:

1. Identify that you are engaging in cognitive distortions

2. Name the distortion you are using

3. Check the facts of the situation, be objective

4. Talk to someone who is objective to explore the facts

5. Reframe, challenge the thoughts, ask yourself what it is about this situation/event that is unfinished or undone for you (what is your brain trying to sort out)

6. Replace thoughts with ones that reflect reality

7. Do this until new thought patterns become habit


How can we better regulate distress and emotions?

boreal forest

Recognize your own window of tolerance & symptoms of dysregulation

If possible, intervene on yourself prior to the point of dysregulation before fully exiting your window


Try this pathway:

1. engage in mindfulness - observe your internal experience without judgement

2. name the agitating event

3. identify the internal experience (what is happening for me right now?)

Self regulation

4. name your emotions (be specific - e.g., frustrated vs angry) and identify your distress level (0-10)

5. check the facts, are distortions or filtering occurring? (what did they actually say? What did I hear? What do I feel?)

6. Are you ruminating? Your brain is trying to solve something (what is not finished for me in this situation?)

7. name your vulnerabilities (short or long-term, what are they, how are they showing up for you?)

    7a. short term vulnerability - HALT or feeling unwell

    7b. long term vulnerability - what about this situation is triggering? How is this familiar to my nervous system?

8. manage vulnerabilities (in the moment if possible, or make a plan to work on them later)

9. Engage in discernment: Whose is this? What belongs to me, someone else, or to our dynamic?

Is this an institutional issue (lack of support for conflict management, power imbalance, bias, etc), a societal issue (discrimination, marginalization), etc? If 100% not yours, do not own it. We can only control ourselves.

If partially yours (even 1%), take responsibility for your distress, it's never ok to take it out on someone else.

10. If in hyperarousal: try 4-7-8 breathing (in-4 sec, hold-7 sec, out-8 sec); 

5,4,3,2,1- name: 5 things you see, 4 objects you touch, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, 1 thing you taste. Suck on sour candy, splash cold water on your face. use TIPS skills (hard to feel 2 things at once so change your body's experience of the moment)

11. If in hypoarousal: get into your body (stretch, go on walk), return to present moment (breathing, body scan), do something creative. Suck on sour candy, splash cold water on your face.

12. Longer-term solutions: expand your window of tolerance (counseling, brainspotting, EMDR, yoga, meditation, mindfulness practice), resolve vulnerabilities that make stressors triggering.

Working in STEM fields is exciting and rewarding but stressful

working in STEM

-Stress is the common currency across events that disrupts our internal environments.

-Plus we bring vulnerabilities to the workplace as part of being a whole person.

-Things often go wrong while working in STEM fields, particularly research (equipment breaks, experiments fail, project delays, etc)

-Often institutional tolerance of bad behaviors (bullying, scapegoating, general "meanness" for sport, exclusion, etc)

-Intense competition for scarce resources (funding, etc)

-Funding instability

-Ineffective mentorship and leadership

-Institutional and administration issues

-Poor work boundaries expected and/or enforced

-Dealing with difficult feedback that is often poorly given

-Lots of rejection (job applications, proposals, papers)

-Interpersonal challenges and incompatibility that are difficult to address or talk about

-Field work can make this more challenging - few options to get space from stressors so they feel amplified, always together with coworkers (difficult when you don't get along), etc

-All these dynamics can trigger attachment wounding, as "family dynamics" play out in unexpected ways

boreal forest

Let's put this information into practice with a real-world example


Negative event - the data are a mess, you're not seeing what you'd hoped for in the results

Identify what is coming up for you & your window of tolerance - I feel heart is racing so I think I might be feeling a lot of anxiety, agitation, getting dysregulated and hyperaroused

Manage your distress - breathing, grounding, discernment (yep, this is mine)

Vulnerabilities - I'm tired. I've been working a lot. I might not have the perspective I need right now.

Identify your thoughts - This is a failure, my project is stupid and never going to work out, why am I trying to be a scientist anyway, I don’t know what to do, things should work out if I work hard enough

Identify any distortions - Catastrophic thinking, black/white thinking, should-ing, mental filtering, fairness fallacy

Check the facts, challenge thoughts, check with others - Is this really as bad as I think it is? What is the real issue with the data? Is it all crap or can I salvage some of it? How can I pivot and see the opportunity in this? Who can I turn to for advice on how to proceed? What is the true relationship between these data not looking great and my value as a scientist?

Reframe - This is likely not as bad as I think it is. Every project has issues. Learning to pivot is how I grow as a researcher. What can I learn from this so things might be different next time. This does not mean I am a bad scientist. I am capable and have gotten this far. I will learn more about my system by managing this issue.

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