The American Psychological Association defines psychological distress as “a set of painful mental and physical symptoms that are associated with normal fluctuations of mood in most people.” However, in some cases, this distress can be the start of a mental health disorder, such as major depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder, or some other mental health condition. Understanding the causes of psychological distress may help you prevent it and overcome it when it arises.
What Is Psychological Or Mental Distress?
While most people experience stress from time to time, psychological distress can have a more profound effect on an individual. Psychological distress can even be a precursor to a mental illness. However, experiencing psychological distress does not always indicate the presence of a mental health disorder.
Experiencing psychological distress can feel overwhelming, and many people may want to manage their way through it discreetly. However, people who seek help during times of psychological distress may learn effective coping mechanisms to shorten its duration and mitigate any long-term effects.
The Effects Of Psychological Distress
Psychological distress can cause different symptoms in different people. The cause of the stress, and a person's coping mechanisms, may determine how they are affected.
A person who lives with high levels of psychological distress may also experience impaired mental health, followed by an increased risk for developing a mental health disorder. It can be natural to feel symptoms of stress during a crisis. For example, losing a loved one or surviving a major natural disaster are two examples of life-changing events that can lead to intense psychological distress. The intensity of distress typically subsides with time. However, when these feelings persist and are accompanied by other symptoms, such as sleeplessness or an uncontrolled reliving of a stressful or traumatic event, a person may be experiencing a stress disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you are concerned that you may be experiencing an underlying anxiety or stress disorder, you don’t have to face it alone. You can speak with a mental health professional, whether in person or online. They may be able to help you to understand why you are experiencing these symptoms and provide an evidence-based treatment for you.
Common Symptoms Of Psychological Distress
Symptoms of psychological distress can vary, even among people who have experienced the same stressor. However, the following are some common symptoms of psychological distress:
- Problems with anger management
- Physical symptoms that can't be explained by a medical condition, such as headaches
- Low energy levels
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Excessive use of alcohol or other substances
- Thoughts of hurting oneself or others*
*If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please seek help immediately. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7. Help is also available via live chat on the lifeline’s website.
Other possible signs of psychological distress may include anxiety, panic attacks, irritability, and tearfulness, which may be seen immediately after a stressful event or when a person is triggered by a memory.
Determining The Cause Of Psychological Distress
If you are experiencing psychological distress, identifying the source may be the first step toward managing symptoms. Some factors may be more apparent than others, such as the stress of a changing relationship, moving to a new home, or losing a job. Others may not be so clear. For example, if you have had a history of a traumatic injury or illness, psychological stress may cause unexpected physical symptoms later on, and vice versa
Overcoming Psychological Distress
Uncontrolled psychological distress can affect a person in several ways, but there are strategies to manage and even overcome it. It may help to seek medical attention when you recognize you are experiencing symptoms of psychological distress. A healthcare provider can evaluate any symptoms you report while considering any potential physical causes.
Once you have seen a physician, there are other things you can do to help relieve psychological distress, including:
Research shows that the benefits of exercise are both physical and psychological. According to the Mayo Clinic, psychological benefits associated with exercise include stress reduction and improved mood due to the release of endorphins, which are also known as the body's “feel good” neurotransmitters.
Develop Patterns Of Activity Balanced With Adequate Sleep
Sleep deprivation can contribute to anxiety and mental distress. An article by Harvard Health Publishing states that the overlap between sleep disorders and various mental health problems is thought to be so strong that researchers have long suspected both types of concerns may have common biological causes.
While exercise and activity have been shown to be important for your health, it can be just as important to balance activity with sleep. Good sleep gives your body a chance to recover from daily activities and stress. Sleep gives your heart a chance to rest, keeps your immune system functioning optimally, and allows you to form long-term memories.
Even in our health-conscious society, many people do not realize the effects that diet can have on mood. A lack of proper nutrition can affect mood and energy. For example, there are nutrients in certain foods and diets that have been linked to improvement in symptoms of depression. When stress levels are already a concern, the effect of poor nutrition can compound the distress.
Research shows that journaling can have a significant impact on mental health. Many people find that writing down their thoughts and feelings helps them release frustrations without having to talk to others. Freely expressing your innermost thoughts and frustration may be a cathartic and therapeutic way to release your feelings in a safe and controlled space. Nonetheless, if symptoms are recurrent or severe, making an appointment with a counselor or a therapist may be a helpful option that can lead to healing and recovery.
When You Need Help, Reach Out For Support
The effects of psychological distress may interfere with the ability of a person to accomplish everyday tasks. It may help to talk to an unbiased person who has professional experience helping people navigate psychological distress. Therapists are trained to help people feel comfortable discussing emotionally stressful situations.
If you’re experiencing psychological distress that makes it difficult to leave home, you may benefit from online therapy. With online therapy, you can discuss your symptoms from home or anywhere with an internet connection via phone, texting, or video chat. Also, with BetterHelp, you can contact your therapist at any time day or night through in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can. This may be especially useful if you want to discuss symptoms of distress in between sessions.
In addition to being convenient, online therapy has been shown by numerous peer-revised studies to be effective for a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. One systematic review and meta-analysis published in The Lancet found that online therapy was more effective than traditional in-office therapy at reducing depression symptoms.
Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing symptoms related to psychological distress.
After a long down period in my life, I hesitantly turned to therapy. I chose Jennifer as my counselor and it's one of the best decisions I've made. She was able to identify and guide me through my issues. Each session she would provide me with tasks to complete during the week that would help me bring back my confidence. My outlook on life has changed thanks to her. If I ever find myself stuck in a dark period again, I would trust her to help me find the answers. Thank you so much for your help."
“I have been working with Monique for about a year, on the tail end of 5 previous years in therapy with various counselors. Monique is THE BEST & most effective counselor I have ever had. I feel like she really tailors her approach to suit me. She is warm and makes me feel like it is a safe space, yet she also knows exactly when I need a push or when to raise a point that I won’t necessarily like but NEED to hear. I have never grown as much in a year with another counselor. She is exactly the kind of counselor you’d want to have - where you feel like you really need her and you don’t want to ever not be working with her, yet she makes you feel so strong and so much more improved that you know you’ll be okay when that time comes. Thank you, Monique, for all you do!”
What is an example of psychological distress?
Psychological distress (PD) is a nonspecific term for mental anguish, stress, or suffering. The following examples are common risk factors for psychological distress: job dissatisfaction, conflict in family life, and loneliness. Protective factors, such as participation in community and social support can reduce the risk of PD.
Examples include experiencing sleep disturbances after witnessing a traumatic event, becoming overwhelmed by an unhealthy work culture, or avoiding opening bills if you’re experiencing financial strain.
What is the difference between mental illness and psychological distress?
A mental illness (also called a psychiatric disorder or mental disorder) is a diagnosable medical condition that meets specific criteria detailed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
Psychological distress (PD) is a more general term for emotional discomfort and suffering. If you’re experiencing PD, you may have a wide range of symptoms like insomnia, fatigue, migraines, or behavioral problems. The DSM-5 lists significant psychological distress as a requirement for the diagnosis of many mental illnesses. PD can also be a fleeting phenomenon that resolves once stressors are addressed or eliminated. For example, many public health workers experienced transient psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are the signs of psychological distress?
Signs of psychological distress may include:
- Sleep disturbances
- Weight and appetite changes
- Unexplained physical symptoms, such as migraines, nausea, muscle tension, increased heart rate, clenched jaw, or diarrhea
- Irritability or restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Sadness or low mood
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Issues with memory, problem-solving, or ability to concentrate
- Increased isolation
- Feeling overwhelmed, broken, irreparable, helpless, or hopeless
- Using substances to manage distress
- Thoughts of self-harm or harm to others
The General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) is a 12-item survey often used to assess the presence of psychological distress. Participants are asked to answer if they’ve recently:
- Been able to concentrate on what you’re doing?
- Lost much sleep over worry?
- Felt you were playing a useful part in things?
- Felt capable of making decisions about things?
- Felt constantly under strain?
- Felt you couldn’t overcome your difficulties?
- Been able to enjoy your normal day-to-day activities?
- Been able to face up to your problems?
- Been feeling unhappy and depressed?
- Been losing confidence in yourself?
- Been thinking of yourself as a worthless person?
- Been feeling reasonably happy, all things considered?
Questions are answered on a 4-point scale, from “better than usual,” to “much less than usual.” Points are then added up, with a higher score indicating a greater likelihood of distress.
Is psychological distress the same as stress?
Stress is a very common reaction to environmental or internal triggers. When stress is manageable and short-lived, it can increase motivation, boost performance, improve memory recall, and help establish and maintain healthy relationships. This type of beneficial stress is sometimes referred to as eustress. You may experience eustress when you’re going out on your first date, or when you’re “amped up” before a sports competition.
However, when stress is unhelpful, severe, and/or persistent, it’s called distress. Unlike eustress, distress may impair performance, decrease motivation and energy, make it more difficult to focus on tasks, and lead to uncomfortable physical symptoms (like migraines or nausea). You may experience psychological distress in some of the following situations:
- There’s a major upcoming deadline at work
- You’re living through war, conflict, or a natural disaster
- You are experiencing financial insecurity
- Your work environment is very demanding
Left unaddressed, elevated stress hormones (like cortisol) and psychological distress can be harmful to both mental and physical health. Adverse health effects may include: digestive issues, weight changes, heightened risk of cancer, high blood pressure, higher susceptibility to stroke, reduced quality of life, and increased risk of mental health problems.
What is psychological distress?
Psychological distress is a general term for a subjective sense of discomfort, mental anguish, perceived lack of control, anxiety, or stress. Psychological distress may cause somatization, or physical manifestations of psychological factors. For example, some people may develop persistent gastrointestinal distress, low back pain, or migraines.
In some cases, psychological distress may be transitory (short-term), while in other cases it may be persistent and indicative of a diagnosable mental disorder, such as anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder. For many disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) includes “clinically significant distress or functional impairment” as a requirement for diagnosis.
There are some mental health disparities when it comes to psychological distress, with one study finding that racial and ethic minorities experience significantly higher levels of severe and moderate psychological distress than White participants. The researchers found that this disparity could mostly be attributed to socioeconomic differences and minority stress (such as discrimination and bias).
What is a real life example of distress?
There are many common examples of distress, such as:
- Feeling irritable and avoiding loved ones after a traumatic event: Many people experience distress after living through or witnessing natural disasters, surviving intimate partner violence, or other traumatic events.
- Feeling worthless or defeated in anticipation of an important exam that you do not believe you are prepared for: While healthy stress can motivate you to study for the exam, distress may push you to avoid studying because you believe it’s hopeless.
- Experiencing burnout at work that affects job performance and causes exhaustion: Psychological distress among workers is common, and some professions are at a higher risk than the general population. For example, healthcare professionals, teachers, and lawyers have some of the highest rates of burnout.
- Experiencing insomnia and lack of appetite after the loss of a loved one: When grieving a significant loss, psychological distress is very common.
Whenever stress is severe, persistent, or harmful, it may be characterized as distress.
Is psychological distress the same as depression?
Depression refers to a group of psychiatric disorders, including major depressive disorder (sometimes called clinical depression), persistent depressive disorder, and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. There are specific criteria laid out in the DSM-5 that are required to meet diagnostic criteria for a depressive disorder.
Psychological distress is a more general term that indicates unhealthy stress, mental anguish, behavioral issues, and/or physical manifestations of psychological challenges. Psychological distress can impair mental health and it may indicate a mental disorder. Factors related to psychological distress include perfectionism, lack of social support, negative interactions with co-workers, and insomnia.
Is mental distress the same as anxiety?
Distress is frequently triggered by external factors, such as major life events or deadlines at work. Symptoms of distress may go away when the stressor is addressed or removed, such as when you stop working in a toxic work environment. Unlike distress, anxiety is characterized by persistent or intense worry that does not go away when stressors are removed. The symptoms of distress and anxiety are very similar, and they often co-occur, which can make it difficult to distinguish the two emotions.
How do you treat psychological distress?
If you’re experiencing psychological distress, you may find the following strategies helpful:
- Take care of your mental and physical health by getting routine physical activity and eating a nutritious diet
- Establish a consistent bedtime routine
- Practice mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga
- Limit the use of substances like alcohol and cigarettes
- If you’re experiencing burnout, try to recognize the meaning and impact of your work, or consider talking to your boss to adjust your workload or autonomy with projects
- Learn new communication strategies if your relationship is experiencing strain
- Counter self-criticism by practicing self-love and acceptance
- Consider whether you’re work, relationship, or other distressing situation is best for your mental health, and think about productive ways to address your stressors
- Make time to volunteer, connect with loved ones, and pick up a new hobby
- Talk with a mental health care provider, like a licensed psychotherapist or a marriage and family therapist
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