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.
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
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
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.
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
The results suggest even low or moderate levels of distress can increase your chances of developing:
Emotional distress can happen to anyone, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. You can sometimes keep it from happening in the first place.
Even if you can’t completely prevent distress and overwhelm, take heart: Helpful habits and daily practices can often ease its severity and impact.
Clements offers an essential reminder: “Life changing experiences are just that: life changing. It’s important to remember that emotional distress is not a sign of weakness.”
Still, it’s possible to draw strength and resilience from within. These 5 strategies can help you tap into your inner hardy reserves.
1. Accept your emotional experience
In times of stress, it’s often easy to spend a lot of time resisting the reality of the situation. You might catch yourself wondering things like:
- “Why does this have to happen to me?”
- “This isn’t fair.”
- “What if I’d made a different choice?”
- “What if that had never happened?”
While these reactions make sense, they can also compound your distress.
But accepting your reality, or the way things did play out, could help reduce the strength and intensity of your emotions.
Accepting your reality doesn’t mean you pretend to like what’s happening. It simply means sitting with the emotions that come up.
When you resist, or don’t understand, what your emotions are trying to communicate, that can feel like a threat to your nervous system, Clements explains. Naming those emotions, however, can help your nervous system make sense of the experience and help your brain come out of fight-flight-freeze mode.
Not sure what you’re feeling? This list of emotions can help you pinpoint what’s going on.
2. Keep an emotional toolkit on hand
In a moment of distress, you may feel so overwhelmed that you temporarily forget about the coping strategies you usually turn to.
That’s why knowing in advance which coping methods work best for you is key. In other words, creating a list or tangible box of coping tools offers another great way to help minimize emotional distress.
You can fill your toolkit ahead of time by jotting down a variety of calming techniques and activities, including:
In an actual toolkit, you might put soothing items, like:
- an appealing scent
- pictures of pets or people you love
- a favorite book that helps you feel calm or happy
- affirmations on index cards or decorated notepaper
That way, when you feel stressed and overloaded, you won’t need to go searching for things to get relief.
3. Add in gentle self-talk
Emotional overload can activate your inner critic and unleash a litany of negative self-talk:
- “You’re being ridiculous.”
- “Get a hold of yourself.”
- “Just deal with it.”
- “Do better!”
- “What’s wrong with you?”
Of course, all this self-criticism generally only ramps up your emotional reaction and leaves you feeling worse.
Even if you already know self-kindness and self-compassion could help you feel better, you might find it tough to switch over your self-talk instantly — and that’s entirely natural.
Not ready for a full dose of self-compassion just yet? Instead, try sprinkling in softer statements that acknowledge the challenges you’re going through as well as the effort you’re putting in.
Clements recommends easing into self-kindness with statements like:
- “What ifI’m doing the best I can?”
- “What if I’m more resilient than I give myself credit for?”
- “May I try to be kind to myself as I navigate this situation.”
4. Embrace your values
“Values can be a great guiding light when life feels dark,” says Clements. Your values can nudge you toward helpful, productive actions in moments where you feel like you have zero control.
To determine your values, try thinking through what’s most important to you. From there, you can make a list of your top values, plus a few actions you can take when feeling emotionally overwhelmed.
How might this play out in practice?
Let’s say you value:
- Family. Honoring this value might involve asking loved ones for help when needed, spending more quality time together, or making a point to connect on a regular basis.
- Spirituality. Honoring this value could mean you begin reading the Torah, find new ways to connect to nature, or start a morning meditation practice.
- Compassion. Honoring this value might involve reaching out to close friends to offer support where needed, making a habit of volunteering on weekends, or reminding yourself to avoid passing judgment on others.
5. Seek support
Healing often doesn’t happen in isolation, and many people need a sense of connection and community to begin moving forward, Clements notes.
Social and emotional support can come from all sorts of places.
For example, you might find it helpful to share your challenges with a loved one who’s an especially good listener and can hold space for you as you process your pain.
That said, you may not always feel ready to share feelings of distress with others, and that’s OK. You might find that other techniques, like journaling and other emotion-focused coping strategies, also make a difference.
Another option to consider? Support from a therapist.
You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental health condition to find therapy helpful. Mental health professionals can offer support with gaining a deeper, fuller understanding of:
- your underlying emotions
- things that trigger emotional distress
- less-than-helpful thoughts and actions that heighten your distress
Therapists can also help you explore strategies for:
- coping more effectively with tough emotions
- addressing deeply ingrained thoughts and behaviors that fuel distress
- practicing more helpful behaviors in the moment
- cultivating resilience to manage distress in the future
Emotional distress doesn’t take the same shape for everyone, and some people find it easier to manage than others.
Lingering distress, however, can have far-reaching effects on daily life, from disrupting your sleep to worsening your health over time.
No matter the source of your pain, you can take action to address it and minimize its impact. These steps might include acknowledging your emotional experience, using calming tools that work for you, and seeking support from loved ones and professionals.
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, has been writing for Psych Central and other websites for more than a decade on a wide range of topics. She’s the author of the mental health journal “Vibe Check: Be Your Best You” (Sterling Teen). She’s especially passionate about helping readers feel less alone and overwhelmed and more empowered. You can connect with Margarita on LinkedIn, or check out her writing at her website.