What Is Psychological Distress? An Overview

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

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.

Getty/AnnaStills
Have questions about psychological distress?

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 range from mild emotional stress to serious psychological distress that may be a precursor to a mental illness. Still, experiencing psychological distress does not always indicate the presence of a mental health disorder.

Experiencing psychological distress can be overwhelming. However, help is available during times of psychological distress. Knowing the right coping skills may help shorten its duration and mitigate long-term effects.

What causes psychological distress?

Various factors may increase the risk of psychological distress. For example, work-related stress and job dissatisfaction are key factors related to psychological distress. High work demands, low job satisfaction, and a lack of emotional support can also result in emotional exhaustion and sleep disturbances. Family life and the lack of emotional support at home can also affect an individual’s psychological well-being. 

Losing a loved one or surviving a major natural disaster are other examples of life-changing events that can lead to intense psychological distress. For some, these events might result in moderate psychological distress, while others may experience profound psychological trauma. 

Some health conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, not only affect physical functioning but can also have a psychological impact, potentially leading to anxiety and depressive symptoms. In addition, lifestyle choices like excessive alcohol consumption or illicit drug use can further affect mental well-being.

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 experience impaired mental health, followed by an increased risk of developing a mental health disorder. 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 in person or online. They may be able to help you 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

  • Decreased cognitive functioning

  • Isolation

  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns

  • Excessive use of alcohol or other substances

  • Thoughts of hurting oneself or others*

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 memory triggers a person.

Getty

Overcoming psychological distress

Uncontrolled psychological distress can affect a person in several ways, but there are strategies to manage and even overcome it. Mental health services are available if you recognize you are experiencing symptoms of psychological distress. A healthcare provider may evaluate symptoms and make an appropriate diagnosis based on general health questionnaires, mental health evaluations, and other factors. 

Once you have seen a physician, there are other things you can do to help relieve psychological distress, including:

Exercise

Research shows that the benefits of exercise are both physical and psychological. 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. 

Avoid prolonged sitting at work

One cross-sectional study involving an employed adult population highlighted the mental health challenges linked with prolonged sitting at work. Men and women who sat for more than 6 hours a day experienced higher levels of psychological distress. Balancing periods of activity with restful breaks at work may improve mental health and reduce sickness absence, ultimately promoting more positive feelings among the workforce.

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.

Nourishing diet

Even in our health-conscious society, many people do not realize the effects of diet on mood. A lack of adequate nutrition may affect mood and energy. For example, certain nutrients in foods and diets 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.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Have questions about psychological distress?

Journaling

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.

Reaching out for mental health support

The effects of psychological distress may interfere with a person's ability to accomplish everyday tasks. It may help to talk to an unbiased person with professional experience in 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 possible. 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.

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!”

https://www.betterhelp.com/monique-phillip/

Takeaway

Many factors can contribute to psychological distress, and it can manifest in different ways in each person. While some people learn to reduce or manage the symptoms on their own, it may be helpful to speak with a licensed counselor, whether in your community or online. If you think online therapy is right for you, you might choose BetterHelp, which has an extensive network of more than 30,000 licensed therapists, so you can be matched with a therapist who has experience helping people overcome psychological distress. Take the first step toward healing from psychological distress and contact BetterHelp today.
For additional help and 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