"Just Suffer Until It Passes"

I started a "universal problemsolving" journal a few months ago — whenever anything goes wrong, I write down (1) what happened, (2) the universal problems / root causes that might underlie that problem, and (3) generalized countermeasures for that situation in the future.

Many of these are basic, boring stuff — "Lack of Relevant Supplies" is a universal problem; lacking food or coffee at home makes the morning run worse. (The countermeasure is having adequate secondary stocks of supplies, and I adjusted my grocery orders accordingly after realizing it.)

Some of them are interesting, though.

Perhaps the most interesting general countermeasure is "Just Suffer Until It Passes."

Sometimes you lie down and can't sleep. What do most people do? Get up and do something stimulating.

Boredom. What do most people do? Do something stimulating.

If you've ever done mindfulness meditation, even for just 5-10 minutes per day, you know that there's periods of massive raw unpleasantness than occur from time to time. You want to get up and stop meditating.

The answer? Just... suffer until it passes.

You can quibble with the wording — some people won't like the word "suffer"... feel free to swap in "endure" or even "wait" for a more neutral-valence word.

But I'm starting to realize a lot of problems aren't huge problems in-and-of themselves, and it's the flight to distraction and stimulation that compound the problem and create bad ongoing habits (internet surfing, games, junk food, whatever).

Potential Takeaways —

(1) I'm getting immense mileage out of my Universal Problemsolving journal. Feel free to think about it and try something like it out. If there's interest, I might write up how I go about doing it.

(2) "Just Suffer [Endure/Wait/Whatever] Until It Passes" — it's possible to accept negative affect and wait, and it... passes. This is often more productive than trying to banish it via distraction or stimulation, which often compounds the problem at hand.

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In the spirit of reversing any advice you hear I would also suggest that sometimes, just waiting and suffering out the problem is a really counterproductive strategy. For example, recently, I had a pretty severe cold, with a fever and a hacking cough that would leave me debilitated for minutes. Now, I could have just laid in bed and suffered through it. And indeed, I did, for a day or so. But when the cold didn't pass on its own, I found that it was way more productive for me to address the symptoms with cough drops, tea, hot soup, and acetaminophen than it was for me to simply wait and try to wait for the problem to go away on its own.

In the same fashion, I find that when I'm in a really bad place, in terms of mental health, trying to suffer through it is often the worst strategy. I use up a ton of willpower forcing myself to not get distracted, which then leaves me feeling drained and unproductive the next day, starting the cycle all over again. I've found that sometimes it's acceptable to have a low productivity day, if you acknowledge to yourself that today will be a low productivity day (or heck, even an entire low-productivity weekend), and then you "reset" and get back into your normal groove the next day.

So what's my advice? I'm not entirely sure. I think I would say that the most helpful thing for me to do has been to set time limits. Try to tough it out for X hours, but after that, rather than grinding one's willpower into a nub trying to brute-force past a problem, accept that the problem will not be solved today. Sometimes, the root cause is insoluble (as was the case with my cold) and the best strategy is to address the symptoms as best as you're able until the root cause resolves itself.

Trying to suffer through a migraine rather than treating it actually sensitizes your brain to getting migraines more easily. I think physical ailments don’t really follow the principle outlined in the OP. For primarily mental frustrations, though, I think it could be valuable.

For primarily mental frustrations, though, I think it could be valuable

It is valuable. Ozy, in their sequence on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, draws a contrast between "radical acceptance" and "opposite action". Radical Acceptance is accepting a fact about yourself, and then deciding that fact is fundamentally okay. Opposite Action is deliberately forcing yourself to do something, even though you dislike it or have an aversion to it.

It seems to me that lionhearted is advocating for Opposite Action. Forcing yourself to "just suffer until it passes" aligns very well in my mind with the opposite action mode of thinking. The essence of opposite action is acknowledging that something sucks, that you hate doing it, and then forcing yourself to do it anyway.

However, while, Opposite Action is a valuable strategy, it is not a universal strategy. One must be careful not to make suffering a virtue unto itself. That's where Radical Acceptance comes in. Radical Acceptance says, "It's okay to screw up. It's okay to choose pleasure over suffering. It's okay that you spent the day reading reddit instead of working on your project. You're not bad, evil or stupid because of it."

The two approaches are in a dialectic (hence, "dialectical behavioral therapy") because neither is effective when used individually. Radical Acceptance, practiced universally just leads you to be in a blissed-out Pollyanna state where your life is falling apart but you've convinced yourself that you're fine because you've "radically accepted" that you can't do anything about your problems. For people stuck in Radical Acceptance (which, in its extreme, is more like learned helpnessness) Opposite Action provides the motivation and strategy to square up to aversive tasks and tackle them head-on.

Opposite Action, practiced universally, leads to burnout and depression. Eventually you come across a problem that exceeds your capacity to suffer. What then? Do you just force yourself to "try, try again"? For people stuck in an Opposite Action mode, Radical Acceptance provides the space needed to step back and look at the problem from a broader perspective. You hate doing the homework for a class. You've always hated it. You suffer every time there's an assignment. Maybe the correct thing to do is to radically accept that you will never find this class enjoyable and drop the class rather than suffering for an entire semester. This doesn't make you a failure or a bad person. It just means you chose not to do a thing.

Neither approach works well on its own, but used together they're effective, even for people with relatively serious mental health issues.

Indeed, yes. Here was another (actually, earlier) entry from my potential countermeasures —

  • Proactive Recharging
    • — Sometimes losing steam or mentally flagging is real, and not much more can be done in terms of productive work.
    • — In that case, deciding intentionally to call a long break (or call done for the day) and recharging via nap or bed, and other recharging activities, can be the right call for the day.
    • — It takes wisdom to know if you should bear down or proactively recharge in a given situation.

With colds, I expect that waiting is roughly the best strategy. See https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/81788.Why_We_ Get_Sick. Our bodies are already evolved to have good defenses against pathogens, and most things we do to fight colds are ineffective, but sometimes look good because they address symptoms (those symptoms are often part of our bodies defenses) or because of regression to the mean.

Our bodies' defenses are good, but they're not perfect and they do have negative side-effects. It is very possible for your immune system to cause damage by causing you to cough too much, run too high a fever, be dehydrated, etc. Moreover, even in cases where the immune system isn't causing physical damage, I find that my mental health is much improved when I'm even marginally functional as opposed to shivering and coughing in bed for 4-5 hours at a time.

Does addressing symptoms lengthen the amount of time your body needs to fight off the virus? Possibly. However, I would much rather be mildly ill for a week than severely ill for three or four days.

I am quite interested in more info on the universal problem solving journal.

Thanks. I'll look to write it up. I'll have to introspect a bit first since it evolved naturally for me, and I'm sure I have some buried assumptions and premises.

I would also be interested in this! I saw a use for it within about an hour of reading the post, when I did something stupid and easily fixable with a bit of thought. I just wrote the problem into a gmail draft, but if doing this turns out to be useful I'll try something more structured.

a lot of problems aren't huge problems in-and-of themselves, and it's the flight to distraction and stimulation that compound the problem and create bad ongoing habits

This reminds me of a technique I use sometimes called Doing Nothing, described in this blog post, where instead of what you call 'flying to distraction' , you just don't do anything at all. You say "I don't have to write this paper right now, but I'm also not going to do anything else". You have the freedom to sit there blankly doing nothing at all for as long as you want, and generally it's not long before you stumble upon some new ideas or motivation to carry on.

A similar work guidline to Do Nothing is Take boring breaks. You allow yourself to take a break from your work when you "feel like it", but the break has to be something plain like getting water, going to the bathroom, or stretching.

I limit my ability to take fun breaks by blocking sites like Twitter and Reddit, or any site I'm spending a lot of time on. When I take a break I have nothing interesting or distracting to do, and soon I'm bored enough to start working again.

Ah! I independently invented this strategy some months ago and amazingly it doesn't work for me simply because I'm somehow capable of remaining in the "do nothing" state for literally days. However I thought it was a brilliant idea when I came up with it and I still think it is, I would be surprised if it doesn't work for a lot of people.

On this point I sometimes find it helpful practice to lean into the suffering until I suffer so much that it breaks. That is, I lean into the suffering but also discover through the suffering that nothing bad happens other than having a feeling that things should be different, and after enough time this causes an update, which I call the break, where you stop suffering from the pain of whatever it is you feel the urge to not have happening. Overtime this retrains you such that suffering pops up less because it's relearned as a not-effective response to pain, againstness, etc.

Note that you have to be responsible with this and only do it when you have good episteme that you are not incorrectly ignoring a signal you should heed. You're trying to get gnosis to match with episteme with this technique, not just give up feeling pain as suffering in general becomes sometimes pain is a useful signal that something is wrong that you should do something about to avoid getting hurt.

I used to do fire performances that would include some "light yourself on fire for the fun and amusement of others" bits. The longer the fire is on you the more it hurts. In the beginning, I would be constantly self monitoring for when it hurt "too much", and then put myself out. I knew though, that although the fire caused pain, it did not at this level cause any serious damage .

Eventually I got to a point where instead of putting out the fire myself, I could hold it long enough that it would go out on its own (all the fuel would burn off). This actually made it hurt a bit less. It turns out that a lot of the perception of pain is from:

1) Worrying that this is causing damage. Pain is much more significant if you are worried that it is causing actual damage ("Oh shit, is my ankle sprained??"). Being fully cognizant that there is no actual damage is helpful. Pain is just your body bringing your attention to potential damage. It's telling you something is wrong, but you already KNOW what's wrong.

2) Constantly checking in for if you have to take action. "Should I turn it off now? How about now? Now?" This is putting your attention on the pain. If you accept that you will not take action, then you do not have to constantly be pinging your pain (and if it ever gets to a point where it pushes past the barriers, you can always take action anyways, relatively instinctively)

These can be replaced with acceptance.

I both enjoyed reading this and feel like I got something out of it, so thanks! In general I would be happy to see more top-level posts of the form "here is an unusual kind of experience I had and here is an unusual but general thing I learned from it."

Incredibly insightful observation. Thank you.

It seems like the key to applying this is determining how much your "suffering" is a useful signal vs just noise.

Ex. With my current eating habits, the feeling of hunger is basiclally noise. I'm getting enough to eat, and I feel fine "Suffering until it passes".

Ex. Sometimes when I'm coding I realise that the code I'm about to write is repetative and boring and I anticipate it being a nasty experience. Most of the time, that is a signal that I'm doing it wrong and that there's a much better way to do it, and "suffering until it passes" will result in me not leveling up, and also waste time.

My guess is that this – enduring a problem vs doing something about it – is a best looked at as a spectrum. Most people overall, and many people here, will be biased towards one side, will endure way less frequently than they should, or way less often. But I'm not confident that most are biased in the same direction. In reality, it really super depends on the problem. Enduring can be way better or way worse.

I would therefore not give advise to move in a particular direction, but to be aware that this is a really relevant spectrum and that there's a good chance you might be doing it wrong and should correct for that.

An example for where directions are reversed:

Sometimes you lie down and can't sleep. What do most people do? Get up and do something stimulating.

When I had a chaotic sleep schedule, which was true for over a decade I think, I eventually updated towards doing that more. Initially my intuition said to just lie there until I fell asleep, which almost never worked. On the other hand, I'd have done better just enduring itching until it passes – as early as possible.

While that appears to be a reasonable way to handle suffering, it reeks too much of needless self-torture, especially if it's a physical ailment. If the suffering is mild enough, sure. But I guess if that's the case, if the suffering is mild enough to lapse into being nearly undetectable, it may be easily ignored just without any will.

It's not — by any means — the only tool in the toolbox. One countermeasure or potential solution among many.