What Is Psychological Distress? An Overview

By: Darby Faubion

Updated May 21, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Rashonda Douthit , LCSW

Have you ever felt an overwhelming sense of vulnerability or fear? Have there been times when those feelings become overwhelming, causing major depression, anxiety, or social isolation? If so, these are symptoms of psychological distress. Understanding the causes of psychological distress and how to effectively manage it can help you improve your mental wellbeing. Read on to learn more about this condition.

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Psychological distress, often referred to as mental distress, is defined as "any range of symptoms and experiences related to a person's internal life; feelings of being troubled, confused, or out of the ordinary." While everyone experiences an occasional lack of energy or focus and even feels troubled from time to time, psychological distress often has a more profound effect on an individual. In fact, psychological distress can accompany mental illness. However, it's important to note that experiencing psychological distress does not always indicate the presence of a serious mental health issue.

Experiencing psychological distress can feel overwhelming, and many people want to go through it it privately. However, according to the CDC, 78 percent of people who seek help during times of psychological distress are able to learn effective coping mechanisms and overcome long-term effects.

The Effects of Psychological Distress

Anyone who experiences psychological distress may exhibit different symptoms. The cause of the stress and a person's coping mechanisms generally determine how they're affected. For example, an individual who is going through a breakup may experience overwhelming sadness or increased anxiety. As a result, he or she may be afraid to face everyday situations.

A person who has lost a job, on the other hand, may feel frustrated or angry, in addition to feeling fear about what to expect in the future, whereas someone who was a victim of abuse may feel distress when meeting new people or when surrounded by others, especially if they're in an unfamiliar place.

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Common Symptoms of Psychological Distress

Symptoms of psychological distress vary even among people who have experienced the same stressor. For instance, if two people were in an auto accident, one may experience fear of riding in a car on a crowded roadway. The other may feel extreme dread at the mere thought of riding in a vehicle because they anticipate another accident occurring whenever they see a car.

Symptoms of psychological distress may include:

  • Weight gain
  • Anger management issues
  • Obsessive thoughts or compulsions
  • Physical symptoms that can't be explained by a medical condition
  • Decreased pleasure in sexual activities
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Reckless behavior

The most obvious signs of psychological distress include anxiety, panic attacks, irritability, and tearfulness, all of which are usually seen immediately after the event. Extreme symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusions, may not manifest until psychological distress becomes severe, but any symptoms should be addressed as soon as they appear.

Determining the Cause of Psychological Distress

If you're experiencing psychological distress, identifying the source of this stress is the first step toward managing your symptoms and reestablishing your mental wellbeing. Some factors may be obvious, 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, the physical stress on your body can cause unexpected psychological symptoms.

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Overcoming Psychological Distress

Uncontrolled psychological distress has a way of affecting every aspect of a person's life, but there are things you can do to help alleviate the distress. First, it's important to seek medical attention when you notice any symptoms of psychological distress. Your primary care provider will be able to evaluate any symptoms you report while considering any potential physical causes. Once you've seen your primary care physician, there are other things you can do to help relieve psychological distress, including:

  1. Exercise: The benefits of exercise are both physical and psychological. According to The Huffington Post, psychological benefits associated with exercise include stress reduction, sharpened brain power/memory, and the release of endorphins, which are also known as the body's "happy hormones."
  2. Develop a pattern of activity balanced with adequate sleep: Sleep deprivation contributes to anxiety and mental distress. While exercise and activity are important, it's just as important to balance activity with sleep. Good sleep gives your body a chance to recover from daily activities and stress, so you can recharge.
  3. Healthy diet: Even in our health-conscious society, many people do not realize the effect that diet can have on mood. In fact, lack of proper nutrition can affect mood and energy. When stress levels are already an issue, the effect of poor nutrition can compound the distress.

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  1. Journaling: Many people find that writing down their thoughts and feelings helps to release frustrations without having to talk to others. It can be a good way to acknowledge feelings and reflect, but if symptoms are recurrent or severe, it may be a good idea to visit with a counselor or a therapist.

When You Need Help, BetterHelp Is There

The effects of psychological distress can be quite frustrating. While there are things you can do to help alleviate some of the symptoms on your own, there may be a time when you need additional support. Counselors and therapists are trained to help clients feel comfortable discussing emotionally stressful issues and to teach clients coping mechanisms.

While some individuals are comfortable with seeing a counselor in person, others may not be. Furthermore, it can be expensive and time-consuming to travel to an office for an appointment. In that case, online therapy might be a great option for you.

At BetterHelp, therapy sessions are completely anonymous and can be accessed from anywhere you have an internet connection. Our team of licensed counselors, physicians, and social workers are dedicated to helping you live a life free of psychological distress. Read the reviews below to learn how our experienced BetterHelp counselors have helped people in similar situations.

Counselor Reviews

"After a long down period in my life, I hesitantly turned to therapy. I chose Jennifer as my councillor 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 thank to her. If I ever find myself stuck in dark period again I would trust her to help me find the answers. Thank you so much for your help."

"Alyssa helped me through a tough time where I was stuck in my head. I'm very grateful for her and BetterHelp."


Many factors contribute to psychological distress. While some people learn to reduce and/or manage the symptoms on their own, there are times when you may need help from a mental health professional. Speaking with a counselor is a great way to address psychological distress, so you can heal and move on. Take the first step today.

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