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How to Recognize Emotional Distress

Many experiences in life are a little challenging to describe. Love, joy, pain — you might know when you experience them but have a hard time putting them into words. And the words you do use to describe them might be pretty different from the words another person might use.

Similarly, the definition of emotional distress can vary, depending on who you ask.

Generally speaking, emotional distress occurs when you’re experiencing an extreme level of unpleasant emotions, says Adrienne Clements, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Head and Heart Integrative Psychotherapy.

You might, for example, describe any uncomfortable or unwanted emotions that come up when you experience challenges or difficulties as “emotional distress.” Many people also use the term as a catch-all for any unwanted mood experience, including mental health symptoms like depression and anxiety as well as emotions like anger and grief.

While emotional distress isn’t a mental health diagnosis, it can still feel overwhelming — so overwhelming, in fact, that you could have difficulty managing your day-to-day routine, says Clements.

The in-depth exploration of emotional distress below can help you better understand it, spot it early on, and take steps to minimize its impact.

Signs of emotional distress

Emotional distress almost always involves shifts in your typical personality and daily function, Clements explains, though the way it feels varies from person to person.

Maybe you’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty in your life, and your usual can-do optimistic perspective takes a more pessimistic turn. Suddenly, you feel helpless, find it tough to focus, and start missing important deadlines at work.

Or, you’ve just made a cross-country move for your partner’s job. Leaving your friends and family has triggered an overwhelming wave of sadness and anxiety. And your beloved activities — gardening, walking, and reading — have lost their spark.

Emotional distress can involve a range of symptoms. A few to pay attention to, according to Clements, include:

  • feelings of depression, anxiety, or emotional numbness
  • declining performance at work or school
  • withdrawal from loved ones or keeping to yourself more than you typically would
  • feelings of guilt or hopelessness
  • trouble making decisions or processing information
  • unusual irritability or aggression
  • sleep changes, including oversleeping, difficulty falling asleep, or waking up early or in the middle of the night
  • eating more or less than usual
  • experiencing physical symptoms, like all-over fatigue, headaches, or stomach pain

Possible causes of emotional distress

Just as symptoms of emotional distress can vary widely, so can its potential triggers.

Clements notes that many experiences can cause emotional distress, explaining that whether something triggers an intense emotional reaction might depend on your nervous system capacity at the time of the trigger.

Some people are naturally more sensitive than others. If you’re a highly sensitive person, for example, you might startle easily, become frazzled when there’s too much happening, and get rattled by change. The things that disrupt your equilibrium may be very different from the things that tend to disrupt someone who prefers working in a bustling, fast-paced environment.

Clements notes a few specific triggers, including:

  • witnessing or experiencing traumatic events
  • navigating a neurotypical culture as a neurodivergent person
  • navigating everyday ableism when living with a disability
  • going through financial difficulties
  • losing your job, a loved one, or a familiar routine
  • dealing with escalating demands at work or toxic behavior from colleagues
  • experiencing racism, discrimination, oppression, or microaggressions

Some research, including 2021 large-scale study of Finnish workersTrusted Source, also found that women reported more emotional distress than men. The biggest risk factors Loneliness, job dissatisfaction, and family-work conflict.

Can mental health symptoms cause emotional distress? Or does emotional distress wear away at your mental well-being?

Actually, it could be both. “Mental health symptoms and chronic mental health conditions can cause emotional distress, and emotional distress is also a natural response to the overwhelm of a life or circumstantial trigger that anyone can experience,” says Clements.

How can emotional distress affect you?

Emotional distress can have a pretty major impact across multiple areas of your life.

Ongoing emotional distress might:

  • keep you from getting enough quality sleep
  • lead to changes in your typical eating habits
  • affect your mood
  • play a part in relationship conflict
  • lead to declining performance at school or work
  • make it harder to focus and complete day-to-day tasks

What’s more, each of these outcomes on their own could have a ripple effect that leads to additional consequences.

If you lie awake night after night, mulling over the source of your distress, you might find yourself falling short of the 7 or 8 hours of sleep you need.

Sleep deprivation, in turn, can affect your concentration and memory, not to mention leave you with a shorter temper. You might lose patience with your partner and kids more readily, forget important commitments with family and friends, or make a number of mistakes at work.

Psychological distress can also contribute to health concerns over time. A 2018 UK studyTrusted Source including data from 16,485 adults explored the relationship between symptoms of anxiety and depression, termed “psychological distress” in the study, and health concerns.

The results suggest even low or moderate levels of distress can increase your chances of developing:

  • arthritis
  • cardiovascular disease
  • chronic pulmonary disease


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