IBD, IBS, Medical Tests

Techniques for Tolerating Discomfort

Sometimes people will avoid situations because they worry they might cause discomfort. This can actually make things worse! You think about discomfort more, and you may miss out on things that are important to you and would naturally help reduce discomfort (like being with your friends, doing meaningful activities, or traveling). 

One alternative to avoiding is to try and accept that you can live the life you want to live despite discomfort. The techniques below can help you move towards this goal. 

Cognitive Strategies 

We know that thoughts can alter how you feel (in your body and mind), which can in turn alter how you behave.  

For example, if you think: 

“If I go to dinner with my friends, I’ll definitely have pain and discomfort, and I’ll have to leave the dinner early! Then everyone will be mad at me and I’ll be so embarrassed.” 

You then may feel anxious, nervous, and may start feeling butterfliers or pain in your stomach, and/or sweat on your hands! This may then mean that you’ll skip the dinner entirely, or you’ll go and you’ll be so nervous the whole time you won’t enjoy yourself.  

Because we know that there is this pathway of thoughts leading to feelings leading to behaviors, oftentimes using techniques to address and try and alter your thoughts (before they cascade in to affecting your feelings and behaviors) can be extremely helpful. Here are two techniques you can try today: 

Reframing through questioning 

Try to evaluate your thoughts as if you were a lawyer examining evidence! If you have a thought like the above about discomfort (“If I go to dinner with my friends, I’ll definitely have pain and I’ll have to leave the dinner early! Then everyone will be mad at me and I’ll be so embarrassed.”), consider asking some of the following: 

  • Does it happen frequently? Rarely? What is the likelihood it would happen again?
  • Has something like this ever happened to me before?  
  • If something like this did happen to me before, what happened? Was I able to make it through to the other side? 
  • Even if the thought may be accurate, is it helpful to keep this thought at the forefront of my mind?  
  • What would I tell a friend if they came to me with this thought? 

Coping statements 

Having coping statements that are unique and personalized to you can help ground you. When you’re in the heat of discomfort, whether that be emotional or physical, it is common to amplify the seriousness of the event and focus on the worst-case scenario. This can make things worse for you. 

Coping statements can help you tolerate, rather than exacerbate, an uncomfortable situation. To help you think of coping statements, try asking yourself some of the following: 

  • Is my discomfort helping? 
  • Is it the same as usual, or different? 
  • What do I need to feel better right now?

Some example coping statements might be: 

  • I know what is happening. There is no emergency here. 
  • This too shall pass. 
  • I have made it through this before, and I can do it again. 

But, what’s most important is that your coping statement is something you would want or need to hear in a moment of discomfort! Try a few different ones out – see what feels best in the moment. 

Body-focused Strategies 

Some people may find they want strategies that feel more action-oriented! Here are some strategies you can do that can help reduce discomfort – these often work by what’s called your parasympathetic nervous system, or your body’s natural relaxation response! 

Breathing Exercises 

Although it may seem simplistic, taking deep slow breaths can actually has been shown to help with pain and discomfort (like in this study or this one)! 

Try to take a moment and breathe slowly in through your nose for 5 counts, hold your breath at the top for 5 counts, exhale slowly out your mouth for 5 counts, and hold your breath at the bottom for 5 counts. This is also called “box breathing”! 

Mindfulness Exercises 

Mindfulness involves bringing your attention to the current moment, and “noticing on purpose.” Practicing mindfulness has been shown to decrease the intensity of pain. Here are some quick mindfulness techniques you can try on your own! 

  • Noticing on purpose 
    • Intentionally notice what is around you! You can do this with any of your senses. For example, you may: 
      • Put food or drink that is nearby to you into your mouth. This can be a mint or a sip of water. Really notice what it feels like to hold this in your mouth. 
      • Consider taste, temperature, size, and texture. 
    • Or you might: 
      • Look around the room you are currently in. 
      • Try to notice something in the room that you have not noticed before, or let your attention rest on a particular item in the room that brings you joy. 
      • What does it look like and what do you like about it? Consider size, shape, color, and likeness. 
  • 5-4-3-2-1 
    • Take a moment to intentionally notice your surroundings 
    • Notice 5 things you can see; Take a slow, deep breath after each thing. 
    • Notice 4 things you can hear; Take a slow, deep breath after each thing. 
    • Notice 2 things you can smell; Take a slow, deep breath after each thing. 
    • Notice 1 thing you can taste; Take a slow, deep breath after each thing. 

Try it out! 

This week, pick out a strategy that you might want to try. After you try it, evaluate, and reflect – what worked well for you? Would you want to change this particular strategy, or even try a new one? Never be afraid to try something more than once, or to try more than one thing! That way, you can create a menu for yourself of what might help in times of discomfort. 


Busch, V., Magerl, W., Kern, U., Haas, J., Hajak, G., & Eichhammer, P. (2012). The effect of deep and slow breathing on pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood processing—an experimental study. Pain Medicine13(2), 215-228. 

Jafari, H., Gholamrezaei, A., Franssen, M., Van Oudenhove, L., Aziz, Q., Van den Bergh, O., … & Van Diest, I. (2020). Can slow deep breathing reduce pain? An experimental study exploring mechanisms. The Journal of Pain21(9-10), 1018-1030. 

Reiner, K., Tibi, L., & Lipsitz, J. D. (2013). Do mindfulness-based interventions reduce pain intensity? A critical review of the literature. Pain Medicine14(2), 230-242.