Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences



Committee Chair

Shari Steinman

Committee Co-Chair

Natalie Shook

Committee Member

Amy Gentzler


Emotional distress tolerance—or the ability to withstand negative emotional states—is considered a transdiagnostic risk factor for psychopathology. Although it is theorized to play an important role in anxiety, research aiming to delineate the relationship between anxiety and emotional distress tolerance is lacking. The current study tested whether an individual’s self-reported emotional distress tolerance predicted avoidance in the presence of feared stimuli using a heights-fearful sample. Moreover, the study tested whether emotional distress tolerance predicted other relevant in-the-moment fear responses, such as peak anxiety, anxious cognitions, and bodily sensations while in a heights scenario. Participants (N = 85) completed a series of questionnaires assessing fear of heights, general negative affect, anxious cognitions, and bodily sensations, as well as two behavioral avoidance tasks (BATs) related to heights, one occurring in vivo and one occurring in virtual reality (VR). Results demonstrated that emotional distress tolerance did not predict avoidance on either of the two BATs. Emotional distress tolerance also did not predict other in-the-moment fear responses in either of the BATs except for peak anxiety in the in vivo task. Post-hoc analyses revealed that emotional distress tolerance did predict self-reported avoidance of heights above and beyond fear of heights and general negative affect. Taken together, results suggest that one’s perception of their ability to tolerate emotional distress predicts their perception of their avoidance of heights, but not their actual avoidance of heights or reactions to heights (with the exception of peak anxiety in vivo). Given these findings, self-reported emotional distress tolerance may not adequately capture how individuals react in distressing situations. Future research should clarify in what ways, if any, emotional distress tolerance affects behavior.

Billingsley_Thesis_ETD.docx (2650 kB)
Updated file with requested changes