How Anguish Affects You

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Anguish is one of the most painful emotions humans feel. The word anguish means extreme pain or distress, and it's one of those feelings that hurts so deeply that words cannot describe it. Dealing and coping with this emotion can be very difficult, but you can do things to help lessen the pain and come out on the other side, including speaking with an online therapist.

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Wondering how anguish is really affecting you?

What is anguish?

Anguish is often referred to as emotional distress or pain, and it can encompass several different emotions, such as trauma, grief, sorrow, fear, and anxiety.

Simply put, anguish can refer to being in severe pain, and it is important to note that anguish can be mental and physical. It's a reasonable, typical, and sometimes even a rational response to a horrible situation. Someone may experience anguish when going through a divorce or losing a loved one. These examples of grief have the potential to wreak havoc on your well-being and can change you, especially if anguish goes on for long enough.

Given the immense complexity of this emotion, it's no wonder so many people have difficulty coping with it. Personal anguish often comes on the tail of a traumatic event and may feel like navigating a narrow passage, which can make coping even more challenging. The term itself, deriving from the Latin angustia for "narrowness," reflects how one's own personal pain can feel constricting, as if being physically strangled by the tight grip of their emotions.

Being unable to cope when living with your own personal anguish can lead to other mental conditions, such as depression and anxiety, especially when experiencing difficult circumstances. Getting treatment or working with a licensed counselor can help you cope with and overcome the feelings of anguish you are experiencing.

Anguish vs. pain

Many health professionals often distinguish between pain and anguish, effectively making them two different things. Doctors may reserve the word pain for physical instances and use the anguish definition to refer to mental distress. The logic for this is that the nociceptors, or sensory receptors for pain, are active in physical pain but not involved in cases of depression and anxiety. Still, more recent neuroscience suggests that there's an overlap in the brain's pathways between mental and physical pain.

To the everyday person, pain is a more generic term, and we use it to describe both physical pain and psychological distress. We even use similar metaphors to describe personal pain and mental traumas, with references to weapons being particularly common. For example, someone might describe the physical pain in their body as "shooting or stabbing," while someone else might describe their response to a situation as being "stabbed in the heart."

Semantics aside, people can feel a sense of anguish both physically and mentally. What does anguish mean to you? For many, "pain" encompasses a wide range of experiences, with "anguish" representing a specific intensity within that spectrum. No matter the area it exists in, anguish can negatively affect various aspects of life.

Mental anguish vs. physical anguish

Before discussing how anguish can impact a human, it is useful to highlight the difference between mental and physical anguish. Mental anguish is usually the response to an event that is considered traumatizing. The two examples above can lead to depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Some people may feel frightened by a particular event, such as experiencing domestic violence.* Regardless of the type of response, it can be detrimental to an individual's state of mind. 

On the other hand, physical anguish can be a little different. Physical anguish can be a response to a mental problem or issue. For example, a case of depression could ruin the appetite of someone and lead to starvation. Perhaps the emotional distress produces a feeling of actually dying inside. However, physical anguish doesn't always need to be associated with mental anguish. Someone can experience physical anguish by accidentally slamming a door on their fingers. While painful, an event such as this most likely won't have the same lasting impact as one that produces a visceral experience through mental anguish.


The effects of anguish

Anguish has the potential to change people. Here are some of the ways that it can affect you and your personality:


Motivation is often one of the first areas of the brain that mental anguish attacks. When people are depressed, the desire to do anything is often diminished. Depression caused by bitter anguish can impact an individual's drive to do basic tasks, like waking up and going to work.

Long-term, untreated depression can spiral out of control and result in various problems when an unavoidable whirl of grief arises. Using employment as an example, it can result in:

  • Decreased productivity

  • More absences

  • Reduced likelihood of retaining a job

Since mental anguish and depression can prey on a person's motivation to work, they need careful attention. It can cause someone to lose their job, affecting their livelihood. If the bills are not being paid, more problems will stack up on top of anguish.


Attitude is also another factor that is often affected by anguish. Even the most positive people can be prone to a shift in attitude following a tragedy. Pessimism can outweigh any sense of optimism for people dealing with anguish, and pessimism can sometimes manifest as self-loathing. Individuals may blame themselves for an event or feel alone. These feelings can also negatively impact their social life.

In times of distress, it's common for people to push away the people who care about them. Someone may try to offer a helping hand, but the desire to be alone overrides the possibility of meaningful social interaction. Your voice and mannerisms may also be affected, and there is the risk of saying something you don't truly mean. Unfortunately, this can discourage friends and family from trying to help you.

Physical symptoms

As mentioned earlier, mental anguish can lead to physical problems. If unaddressed, some of these symptoms can be life-threatening. For example, changes in appetite are typical following an event that caused a state of anguish. For those dealing with depression and anxiety, the thought of eating might rarely cross a person's mind. The physical signs of hunger will also get pushed aside. Not eating can result in quick weight loss. This weight loss is due to a person taking in fewer calories than required to maintain their current weight. If this continues, malnutrition and starvation become possible scenarios. 

Anguish can also affect your sleep and energy levels. Anxiety caused by something traumatic can cause insomnia. Your thoughts may be racing, and you could be tossing and turning in bed; it may seem impossible to get comfortable. Studies show that anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of patients with PTSD can't sleep properly. This example illustrates just how significantly mental anguish can disrupt sleep. Not getting enough sleep can affect your metabolism and hormonal levels and cause a whole host of other issues. 

On the opposite spectrum, depression caused by anguish can make a person chronically fatigued. Even with enough sleep, excessive tiredness and daytime sleepiness are cited by patients with depression. Sometimes, sleeping is all that they want to do to escape their thoughts and reality. This unhealthy habit can lead to poor hygiene, self-care, and work and social relationships.

Things you can do to overcome feelings of anguish

Feeling anguish can majorly impact your life, and doing the simplest tasks can feel overwhelming and unmanageable. You can try certain things, such as exercise and making sure you have positive people and things around you, to lessen your anguish. Exercise has a cornucopia of benefits, and one of them is reduced stress. Surrounding yourself with fun, positive people or things is also a good idea because it can put you in a better mindset. Here are a few more things you can do to overcome the feelings of anguish:

Distract yourself

Finding an activity to distract yourself can take your mind off the feelings of anguish and sadness. Try going to the movies, exercising, or playing a game to allow yourself a break from your current feelings.

Take care of yourself

Anguish can often derail your thoughts and cause you to forget or choose not to take care of yourself. Despite how you feel, try to engage in activities that make you feel calm and relaxed, such as taking a warm bath, lighting some candles, or baking. Furthermore, remember to follow basic self-care so you do not neglect your needs.


Helping others can help you improve your mood and reduce symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety. This can help put the feelings of anguish and sadness aside, even if it's only temporary. 

Practice gratitude

As strange as it may sound, practicing gratitude can give you a ray of hope despite your immense sadness. Taking the time to practice gratitude and find things to be thankful for can make you resilient to negative emotions and distress.

There are many different strategies out there designed to help people experiencing psychological distress. While gathering the motivation to do them may be difficult, participating in various activities can help boost your mood. 

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Wondering how anguish is really affecting you?

Getting professional help for anguish

Medication may be an option for you if the anguish has had a profound effect on your life, such as your eating and sleeping habits. Make sure to consult with a physician who can make the right call for you.

Talking about anguish is one of the most effective ways to address it. You may choose to discuss how you feel with a friend or family, or you can talk about it with a professional. Talking to a counselor can help you sort through your thoughts and teach you healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the feelings you are having. Traditionally, this would require you to take time from work and physically visit a therapist's office for an appointment. However, there is a lot more flexibility with online counseling.

With online therapy, through a platform like BetterHelp, you can attend sessions from the comfort of your home (or wherever you have the internet), making attending treatment while living with the symptoms of anguish much easier. For instance, if you're experiencing fatigue or debilitating sadness, online therapy makes it easy to get help without requiring you to get out of the house or find a therapist in your area.

Additionally, a growing body of research suggests that online therapy is an efficient way of helping individuals manage anguish and its related mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. For example, one review found that internet-based treatment was effective at reducing symptoms of PTSD

BetterHelp's licensed mental health professionals can help you work through your feelings of anguish, no matter their source. Read below what other users have to say about their experiences with their counselors.

Counselor reviews

"I have come a long way. With the help of Alexis, I have accomplished things I thought I'd never do. I am glad I did this; it has benefited me so much. With the guidance and encouragement of Alexis, I am more confident in myself and I see a clear path to success and happiness. I have learned to control myself and not doubt myself. It is hard to let go, but I know I will be fine, and if I need to, she will still be here for me. Thank you Alexis you have truly helped me change my life. I am so grateful. I wish you the best!"

"Peter takes time to understand you and gives you that room to open up in a nonjudgmental space. He is able to tackle multiple stressors and provide solutions to help you streamline thoughts and target areas that need to be addressed. He offers multiple methods (without overwhelming you), to help you through what you are going through and is very patient. He has helped me through a lot and I look forward to continue working with him."


The intense feeling of anguish is only temporary, and you will get to the other side. While there are techniques you can use to help you get through these intense emotions, working with a professional may help you cope with these feelings in a healthier way. No matter what you're going through, with the right tools, you can move forward to a truly fulfilling life.

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