What Is Psychological Distress? An Overview

Updated February 27, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever felt an overwhelming sense of vulnerability or fear? Have there been times when those feelings become overwhelming, causing feelings of depression, anxiety, or social isolation? If so, these are symptoms of psychological distress. The American Psychological Association defines psychological distress to be a set painful physical and mental symptoms that are associated with natural fluctuation of mood. However, in some cases, this distress can be an indicator of underlying mental health disorder, such as major depressive disorder or any other anxiety disorder.  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.

Have Questions About Psychological Distress?

What Is Psychological Or Mental Distress?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines mental distress, or psychological distress, to be "any range of symptoms and experiences related to a person's internal life; feelings of being troubled, confused, or out of the ordinary." While most people experience 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 is important to note that experiencing psychological distress does not always indicate the presence of a serious mental health disorder.

Experiencing psychological distress can feel overwhelming, and many people want to manage their way through it discreetly. However, people who seek help during times of psychological distress can 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 are affected. For example, an individual who is going through a breakup may experience overwhelming sadness or increased anxiety. As a result, they may not want to face everyday situations due to increased feelings of anxiety. 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 survived abuse may feel distress when meeting new people or when surrounded by others, especially if they are in an unfamiliar place.

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 is natural to feel symptoms of stress after a person lives through a crisis of any sort. Losing a loved one or surviving a major natural disaster are two examples of a life-changing event that can lead to intensive psychological distress. The intensity of distress typically subsides with time. However, when these feeling persist and are accompanied by other symptoms, such as sleeplessness and 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 managing an underlying anxiety or stress disorder, do not hesitate to check in with a healthcare provider or mental health therapist. They will help you to understand why you are experiencing these symptoms and diagnose the condition you are managing. 

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 are experiencing psychological distress, identifying the source of this stress is the first step toward managing symptoms and reestablishing mental wellbeing. 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, the physical stress on your body can cause unexpected psychological symptoms.

Overcoming Psychological Distress

Uncontrolled psychological distress has a several aspects of a person's life, but there are strategies to manage and even alleviate it. First and foremost, seek medical attention when you recognize you are having 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 have seen your primary care physician, there are other things you can do to help relieve psychological distress, including:


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 "happy hormones."

Develop Patterns Of Activity Balanced With Adequate Sleep

Sleep deprivation contributes to anxiety and mental distress. A Harvard Health Publishing article stated that the overlap between sleep disorders and various psychiatric problems is so great that researchers have long suspected both types of issues may have common biological causes. While exercise and activity are important, it is 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. During sleep, your body makes repairs to the heart and blood vessels, controls hormones, keeps your immune system functioning optimally, and overall supports healthy growth and development.

Healthy Diet: Even in our health-conscious society, many people do not realize the effects that diet can have on mood. In fact, 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 regarding symptoms of depression. When stress levels are already an issue, the effect of poor nutrition can compound the distress.

Have Questions About Psychological Distress?


Many people find that writing down their thoughts and feelings helps to release frustrations without having to talk to others. Freely expressing your innermost thoughts and frustration is a cathartic and therapeutic way to release in a safe and controlled space. Nonetheless, if symptoms are recurrent or severe, making  an appointment with counselor or a therapist is a helpful option that can lead to healing and recovery. 

When You Need Help, Reach Out For Support

The effects of psychological distress may lead to emotional and mental stress that intervenes with the ability of a person to accomplish simple daily tasks and worsen their quality of life. Alternatively, you may simply need to reach out and talk to an unbiased person with professional experience who help you work through difficult times in life. Understood, 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.

Our BetterHelp team of licensed counselors, physicians, and social workers are dedicated to helping you live a life free of psychological distress. An examination of the efficacy of online therapy established that it is just as effective as traditional face-to-face counseling and that clients were predominantly satisfied with their results. In a thorough review of research, evidence of success with online mental health counseling was reported in the following areas: depression, dementia, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, panic disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, and smoking prevention. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing symptoms related to psychological distress.

Counselor Reviews

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!”



To wrap things up, there are many factors that contribute to psychological distress. While some people learn to reduce 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 beneficial strategy to address psychological distress, so you can heal and enjoy life accordingly. 

For additional help & support with your concerns

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.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started