Sensation Seekers: When Boredom Intolerance Becomes Pathological

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How we handle boredeom and frustration says a great deal about the likelihood we’ll abuse alcohol or drugs, engage in risky behavors, or wind up being diagnosed with certain psychological disorders.

Most of us know what it’s like to be bored out of our skulls on occasion. And most of us prefer a life that’s more than humdrum. It’s natural to want a life that’s mostly interesting if not outright vitalizing, and it would be pretty unnatural to really like being bored. But there are some among us who have such an intense intolerance for the mundane that it fuels in them an inordinate and endless quest for excitement. Now there are some who occasionally thrill-seek just to spice up life a bit. Such folks also appreciate when it’s time to slow down, focus, and deal with the sometimes monotonous but essential other aspects of living. The inveterate sensation seekers among us, however, are forever chasing after their next “high,” and that in itself inevitably leads to big problems.

Leading a responsible life has never been easy. Part of what makes it difficult is enduring the unpleasant and tedious. There’s only so much a person can do to jazz up their experience of doing homework, sorting through the laundry, paying the bills, hauling the kids from here to there, etc. Sometimes life’s duties are just plain dull. Most of us not only have the ability to tolerate that fact but also are willing to embrace that reality, even if we don’t really like it. Generally, we do it in the service of something bigger than our own preferences. Those among us with an excessive sensation seeking tendency, however, simply can’t stand a minute of boredom, so they frequently avoid or deliberately refuse to do things that don’t sufficiently stimulate them. Many times, avoiding the mundane translates into being irresponsible because so many of our duties tend to be both unpleasant and routine.

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Sensation seekers tend not only to get bored easily but also require inordinately high levels of stimulation to feel good. How much of their need for such intense excitement is a result of “habituation” (i.e., developing “tolerance”) to their chronically high levels of stimulation vs. various biological predispositions is a matter of some debate in the research literature. One thing researchers know for sure and have known for a long time is that individuals with a low tolerance for boredom and frustration and who tend to be sensation seeking are at much higher risk for engaging in reckless, impulsive behaviors such as extreme and dangerous sports, fast driving, wanton substance abuse, unsafe sex, daredevil behaviors, criminal activity, and many other behaviors with a high potential for harm to self or others. They gravitate toward the novel and sometimes deliberately take on high levels of stress. Quickly dissatisfied and uncomfortable in relatively unstimulating situations, they also tend to seek immediate relief from any discomfort with their preferred sources of instant gratification, which makes them among the individuals most prone to addiction. By and large, high stimulation seekers compared to low to moderate stimulation seekers are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol and drugs, and engage in a variety of risky, antisocial behaviors. They’re also more likely to be diagnosed with various addictions, ADHD, mood and impulse control disorders, and certain personality disturbances and disorders.

In my book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) I explain how an excessive craving for excitement, low boredom and frustration tolerance, and other factors contribute to the development of personality disturbances like histrionic personality and Antisocial Personality Disorder. I also assert, based on years of experience, that despite popular perceptions to the contrary, folks can, with careful guidance, learn to manage their sensation seeking tendencies, especially if an effort to do so is made early in development, with profound influence on personality formation. I remember one large family (as always, potentially identifying information has been altered to preserve anonymity) whose middle daughter was particularly prone to stimulation seeking behavior, including self stimulation. She was forever making clicking noises or humming, tapping on something or fidgeting, etc. as ways of entertaining herself. Her parents complained that getting her to sit still in church was a major hassle, as she was always wriggling, and alternating between sitting and standing and insisting she needed to go to the restroom. Her brother would tease her by saying she had a worm in her britches, which only upset her. She simply couldn’t do her homework without the TV playing in the background. As you might imagine, she had been diagnosed with ADHD, but she had complications when trying the stimulant medicine typically used to treat the condition, so the family was frantic. At their wits’ ends, they were willing to try anything. But they were skeptical. Could she really learn to be more still? Could she learn to endure the uncomfortable? The secret would prove to lie in intervening in the very early stages of her discomfort with boredom and her first urges to self stimulate. Over time, with consistent reinforcement for her efforts, her entire personality began to change. Some of the daredevil behaviors which had gotten her into trouble at school also decreased. Today, she’s a successful attorney whose conflict-resolution clients claim has “the patience of Job.” Go figure.

We know that detecting excessive sensation craving tendencies early and addressing them in the prime formative years can be key to healthier personality development. Whether the treatment involves primarily medication, behavioral and cognitive-behavioral techniques, or a combination of both (which is more common), the effect appears largely the same. Folks who’ve acquired the ability to tolerate boredom and refrain from excitement seeking and various forms of instantaneous gratification form healthier, more balanced personalities, and become more responsible individuals. So if you notice a sensation seeking tendency in someone you love, it’s important to have them get the help they need as soon as possible.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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