Understanding Emotional Agony And How It Changes Us

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated September 1, 2022

Agony and grief are more than just temporary feelings or passing emotions. Emotional agony tends to affect and change the whole person, from our values and outlook on life to how we treat others. Learning how to recognize agony and its effects can help you channel those changes in a more positive direction.

Defining Agony: What Is Emotional Agony?

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Agony is a state of severe, usually extended, physical, mental, or emotional pain or discomfort. The word agony can be used to describe the intense pain of either the body or the mind.

Emotional agony is a type of severe psychological pain that some of us may experience at some point in our lives for a short or an extended period of time.

5 Common Causes Of Emotional Agony

1. Loss

One of the most common types of emotional agony is the agony of losing someone close to us –otherwise known as grief. Almost every person must go through the process of grief at some point in life, though for some, grief can strike early and often.

2. Mental Illness

Emotional agony can also stem from a mental and emotional disorder such as bipolar disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder (BPD). Those with these disorders can experience emotional agony more frequently than those who do not have the disorders, and in situations where most would not experience high levels of emotional agony (or any emotional distress at all).

3. Physical Illness

Physical pain, whether it is acute (like a broken bone) or chronic (like arthritis), can lead to a state of emotional agony. Chronic pain, especially, can create a sense of despair and cause ongoing emotional distress and mental agony.

4. Regret

Past mistakes and regrets are another one of the primary causes of emotional turmoil in life. If you've made a mistake that you regret—whether you did something on purpose that you now realize wrong, or it was an accident that you feel you could have prevented—living in past regrets can lead to extended periods of emotional agony.

5. Rejection & Failure

Most everyone experiences the emotional pain of rejection or failure at some point in their life. However, for some, the feeling of rejection can lead to a persistent feeling of emotional agony that is chronic and ongoing.

Emotional Pain Vs. Emotional Agony

Emotional pain exists in everyday life: we might have to work on a day where we'd rather stay home. We might not be able to make rent this month and have to borrow money from our parents or partner. These acute emotional pains are usually quickly and easily resolved (you go to work, or you choose to stay home; you borrow the money and resolve to pay it back next month).

Emotional agony, on the other hand, is a severe emotional pain that is less easily resolved and more persistent. Typically, emotional agony doesn't have an easy solution and therefore lasts longer. It also usually affects us more severely than emotional pain.

The difference between emotional agony and emotional pain can be described as follows:

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  • Emotional Pain

A feeling of anger, sadness, or negative emotion that has a defined solution and can be remedied over a short period or through a relatively straightforward and easy action.

  • Emotional Agony

Severe emotional discomfort that does not have an easily defined solution and may only be remedied through an extended period or repeated actions (i.e., therapy).

How Emotional Agony Changes Us

Experiencing emotional agony inevitably changes a person; how much is not always up to the individual. However, we do have the ability to choose whether those changes are positive or negative.

  • You Expect The Unexpected

When you've experienced emotional agony for any period, you learn that negative life events (whether under your control or not) can happen unexpectedly at any moment.

As a positive change:

You take life as it comes, understanding that even the best-laid plans are bound to fail now and then. You take those changes in strides and become more flexible.

As a negative change:

You try harder and harder to plan for the unexpected but inevitably fail to predict the future. You become more and more wary of change and begin to hate even the most minor deviations from everyday routine.

  • You Protect Yourself

Emotional agony can make a person understand the true importance—and fragility—

of their emotional wellbeing. You strive to protect yourself from further emotional agony where possible.

As A Positive Change:

You realize that your emotional wellbeing is largely within your control, but to some extent, it is not. You take precautions to protect yourself from emotional agony, but when those precautions fail, you don't blame yourself or others; instead, you work to overcome the agony you now face.

As A Negative Change:

You look at every situation and everyone as a potential threat to your emotional health. You begin to insulate yourself and shut yourself off from potentially enriching relationships and opportunities for fear of their breaking through your protective bubble.

  • You See The Emotional Agony In Others

Before you experienced emotional agony, you likely wouldn't have been able to recognize it in others, or at least not as well as you do now. Now that you've experienced it yourself, you begin to see emotional agony everywhere.

As a Positive Change:

You notice emotional agony in others, but you don't take on others' pain as your own. Instead, you relate more easily to others and feel less isolated within your pain. You recognize that each person's experience of emotional agony is different from yours.

As a negative change:

You see others' emotional agony as a burden and an addition to your emotional distress. You begin to isolate yourself more as a way to avoid the grief of others. You compare your emotional agony to the agony of others and potentially view theirs as lesser than yours.

  • You Know That Being Happy Again Is Easier Said Than Done

Getting past the events that lead to your emotional agony and being happy again doesn't happen overnight. Even once the agony has begun to fade, you may still experience numbness, disappointment, or loneliness.

As a positive change:

You appreciate happiness more and strive toward making necessary changes that can help you get there. You focus on what you can change and improve and dwell less on what is out of your control.

As a negative change:

You decide that happiness is just too much work, and the things in your past that have caused agony are insurmountable. You know that even if you put in the hard work, emotional agony could strike at any time once again, for which you choose not to work toward happiness.

How To Rise Above And Benefit From Emotional Agony

  • Live In The Moment

We've all heard about the many benefits of mindfulness. But when it comes to overcoming emotional agony, this truly is one of the first steps. Dwelling in the past is the single most harmful thing you can do during periods of severe emotional pain. Instead, focus on the present and work on the things you can change, rather than the things that are out of your control.

  • Reach Out

Emotional agony can quickly lead to isolation, which can lead to even further emotional agony. When you begin experiencing severe emotional pain, one of the best things you can do is make it known, whether to a trusted friend or a counselor. Often, just saying the words out loud (or writing them down) to someone willing to receive them can take much of the power out of the pain you're experiencing.

  • Let Go Of Blame

Forgiving yourself or someone (or something) who has wronged you is key in overcoming emotional agony. Forgiveness is not about forgetting about what happened, but rather, it's about letting go of the things that you cannot change.

  • Get Proactive

While understanding that some emotional pain and even emotional agony is unavoidable, developing a strategy to create happiness in your life can be useful. Often, we take happiness for granted and assume that it's something that should fall in our lap, when in fact, happiness is hard-earned through work and perseverance.

Seeking Help With Emotional Agony

While defining agony and how it changes us for good and for bad is a start, emotional agony is one of the most challenging trials to overcome alone. Oftentimes, while helpful, the support provided by friends and family is not enough. Consider creating a better system for overcoming agony with the help of a professional counselor or therapist.

Online therapy is a convenient way to connect with a counselor or mental health provider. Research shows that online counseling is as effective as in-person sessions and can help individuals cope with anxiety and depression. One such study from Palo Alto University found that approximately 73% of study participants saw improved symptoms after six weeks of video-based cognitive behavior therapy. According to the research, and the data suggests a “decelerated decrease in symptoms over time.”

The supportive counselors at BetterHelp have assisted many people seeking happier, more meaningful lives. The online platform allows you to easily connect with a therapist from your smartphone, tablet, or computer at a time that is most convenient for you. BetterHelp takes your confidentiality seriously and is committed to upholding your privacy, no matter what. Read below to hear how BetterHelp therapists have helped people like you.

“Although I have just started with Bruce a few weeks ago, I feel lighter in my emotional load. As a clinician myself, we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves and Bruce has a wonderful way of just being there in the present with you and exploring other mediums of coping and being supportive. Very active responder and great communicator.”

“Yvette has really helped me grow. After around 3-4 months, I've already seen an improvement in my ability to handle tough situations and develop a stronger inner-self. I've had therapy from countless professionals, but this is the first time that I had therapy and I am actually resilient emotionally. Wow, I didn't know I could do that, and really thank Yvette for being a great therapist to help get me to this point.”

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