What Is Psychological Distress? An Overview

Updated December 13, 2018

Reviewer Rashonda Douthit , LCSW

Psychological distress, also commonly referred to as mental distress, is clinically defined as "a range of symptoms and experiences of a person's internal life that are commonly held to be troubling, confusing or out of the ordinary." Some of the most common, underlying causes of psychological distress are traumatic experiences, drug/alcohol abuse, stress, lack of sleep, etc. Although psychological distress can be a symptom of mental illness, one can experience psychological distress without necessarily being mentally ill. Although there are certain steps which can be taken to avoid or neutralize psychological distress, in many cases, seeking professional help is the best route to overcoming psychological distress.

Source: commons.wikimedia.org

A Closer Analysis of Psychological Distress

Psychological distress is much more complex and nuanced than it may appear on the surface. According to Study, psychological distress is usually and initially triggered by an unsettling event. This could be divorce, being laid off from work, the loss of a loved one.

Each person's experience of psychological distress is different. However, there are still parallels and common themes which are often shared throughout tenures of psychological distress. First and foremost comes perceptions of the environment and lack of comfort with frequent activities. Individuals who are subjected to psychological distress may feel unhappy, anxious, or otherwise uncomfortable. They may also lose interest in activities they usually love and enjoy; this can include a lack of interest in exercise, personal grooming, hygiene, and even work. People who suffer from mental distress may purposefully isolate themselves from friends and family or even lash out at loved ones who try to help them.

It's important to note that the levels of psychological distress may vary. When many people hear the term, they often think of someone who has mental illness. No matter what level of psychological distress one experiences, it should always be taken seriously.

Common Symptoms of Psychological Distress

Despite certain misconceptions, psychological distress is not always easy to identify. Indicators of psychological distress are often misconstrued as an annoyance, laziness, and a short temper. Now, while every person will experience negative emotions and feelings from time to time, habitual occurrences of the following ailments is often indicative of a larger problem.

According to the University of Melbourne, the most common symptoms of psychological distress are as follows: anxiety, panic attacks, irritability, tearfulness, hallucinations, delusions, odd behaviors, extreme weight gain/loss, suicidal thoughts/actions, etc. Although many of the symptoms above occur once psychological distress has reached its more extreme levels, there are still telltale signs to look out for in the beginning. One, for instance, is observing notable changes in habits or behaviors.

Source: pixabay.com

Most people who know someone well will be able to tell when that person is "not themselves" or not behaving as they usually would. One of the easiest ways to keep an eye out for this is by observing someone's daily habits. This doesn't mean that friends or relatives should be intrusive of the person they're concerned for. However, if someone who always comes to work on time is suddenly late more than once or twice, it might be a good idea to check in.

If a usually cheerful and upbeat individual is suddenly downtrodden or otherwise gloomy, reaching out to them is advisable. Believe it or not, the beginning phases of psychological distress are largely fueled when the suffering individual feels as though he or she is alone. Having friends and family members by their side can sometimes nip psychological distress in the bud before it truly escalates into more dangerous levels.

How to Overcome Psychological Distress

Believe it or not, there are a variety of lifestyle changes and steps which people can take to overcome psychological distress. Psych Central explains that mental distress has the power to "hijack" the way people think and behave if it's not properly addressed and managed. Thankfully, the following changes and advice should prove helpful to anyone who is striving to overcome tough times and regain true happiness.

Determine the Cause of The Psychological Distress

It is important to first determine the cause of the psychological distress. Unfortunately, this is something which many individuals struggle with or fail to do altogether. At the root of every problem lies its cause. Sometimes the cause of distress is not always what one might imagine it to be. A particular environment can cause psychological distress, relationship, or individual. Financial distress, career issues, and other similar matters can also contribute to psychological distress, especially over long periods of time.

Source: maxpixel.net

Although realizing the true cause of psychological distress may be initially uncomfortable, it is still one step forward. If a particular environment is engendering distress, removing oneself from the setting might be a good idea. Likewise, if a relationship or individual cause mental distress, then it may be true time to end the relationship or cut ties with the individual. This is often easier said than done, especially if these ties have existed for years. Nevertheless, toxicity comes in many forms. Psychological distress is a very serious ailment and nothing to be taken lightly. Nobody and nothing is worth the decline of one's mental health and wellness.


Believe it or not, exercise comes with a plethora of benefits, many of which counteract the psychological occurrences that breed distress. According to The Huffington Post, the litany of psychological benefits associated with exercise include reduction of stress, the release of endorphins which engender euphoria/happiness, heightened confidence, sharpened brain power/memory, and more. Granted, finding the motivation to hit the gym or hit the trails can be challenging. However, this is a time where pushing oneself is more than worth the reward. Exercising doesn't have to mean spending three to four hours in the gym. Being active for at least 15-20 minutes each day is a great starting point. As the body eventually gets used to exercise, its tolerance will gradually increase. Exercise comes with both physical and psychological benefits.

Develop a Regular Sleep Pattern

There are a shocking number of people who lack a regular sleep pattern. This doesn't mean that these people never sleep, but it does mean that they don't go to sleep and wake up at a certain time regularly. Skills You Need explains that a regular sleep pattern helps the body and mind establish certain patterns. Moreover, sleep habits should not be induced by medication or other artificial means. Instead, individuals should increase feelings of relaxation before their time to fall asleep rolls around. Some basic techniques of doing this include turning off smartphones, avoiding caffeine/alcohol at night, or even listening to soothing, instrumental music as one drifts off. This may seem difficult in the beginning, but with consistency, a regular sleep pattern will prove to be a formidable combatant against psychological distress.

Seek Professional Help

Even to this day, some people struggle with the idea of seeking professional help, regardless of how much they need it. There are a variety of reasons behind this struggle. Sometimes pride and ego are responsible for an unwillingness to ask for professional assistance. In other cases, some individuals are unaware of where to turn, while others believe that professional help is indicative of personal weakness or shortcoming.

Source: archive.defense.gov

Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable with asking for help. Nobody is perfect; we all fall short in one way or another. What's important is getting up when life knocks us down, even if that means asking for a hand up. Determining the cause of psychological distress is a wonderful thing, as is improving lifestyle habits (by incorporating exercise and regular sleep patterns), but this will not be enough for everyone…and that's OK. As previously stated, no two individuals will experience psychological distress in the same way.

Here at BetterHelp, our number one priority is providing guidance and assistance to those who contact us. This is done by our licensed therapists getting to know you, understand your situation, and then working with you accordingly. We want people to know that their experience of psychological distress does not have to last forever. With time, patience, work, and dedication, it can be overcome.

Ultimately, the decision to seek professional help is a personal one. However, BetterHelp will always be available as an option. You can contact us at any time by clicking here.

Previous Article

What Is Emotional Distress? An Overview

Next Article

How Anguish Affects You
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Counselor Today
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.