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How to Recognize Emotional Distress
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Many of life’s events are difficult to put into words. Even if you feel them, it might be difficult to put into words how you feel. In addition, the words you choose to describe them may be very different from those used by someone else.
In the same way, different people have different ideas about what “emotional distress” is.
According to Adrienne Clements, a certified marital and family therapist and the creator of Head and Heart Integrative Psychotherapy, emotional distress arises when you are feeling a high amount of negative emotions.
When faced with adversity or difficulty, you may experience “emotional distress,” which is a general term that encompasses a wide range of unpleasant or undesirable feelings. Many individuals also use the phrase as a catch-all for any negative mood experience, including mental health symptoms like sadness and anxiety as well as emotions like rage and sorrow.
But even if you don’t have an official mental health diagnosis, Clements warns, “emotional anguish might seem so overpowering that you may have difficulties managing your day to day schedule.”
Emotional distress symptoms
Regardless of how it manifests itself, Clements says that emotional anguish nearly always results in changes to one’s normal personality and everyday activities.
Having a more gloomy outlook can be a sign that you’re coping with a lot of uncertainty in your life. Suddenly, you’re left feeling powerless, unable to concentrate, and on the verge of missing critical job deadlines.
Or, you’ve recently made a cross-country relocation for your partner’s employment. You’re feeling a lot of grief and worry since you’re moving away from your friends and family. The same may be said about the things you used to like doing the most – gardening, strolling, and reading, for example.
A wide variety of signs and symptoms point to emotional distress. 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.
Sensitivity runs in families, and some people are just born with it. Those with high levels of sensitivity, on the other hand, are more likely to be startled, stressed out, and thrown off balance by sudden events. 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 mentions a few triggers in particular, such as:
- 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 studies, notably the 2021 large-scale survey of Finnish employees, also indicated that women felt higher emotional discomfort than males. The largest danger factors? Loneliness, job unhappiness, and family-work conflict.
Can mental health issues induce emotional distress? Or does emotional discomfort erode away at your mental well-being?
Actually, it may be both. “Mental health symptoms and persistent mental health disorders may create emotional distress, and emotional discomfort is also a normal reaction to the overload of a life or contextual trigger that anybody can experience,” adds Clements.
What are the effects of emotional distress on you?
Many aspects of your life are affected by emotional distress. Emotional anguish might be caused by:
- preventing you from receiving a good night’s rest
- cause you to alter your usual eating habits
- alter your feelings
- play a role in tension in romantic relationships
- contribute to a decrease in academic or professional performance
- make it more difficult to maintain concentration and finish routine chores
There’s also the possibility that any one of these possibilities may set off another chain reaction. You may not get the amount of sleep you need if you keep thinking about the cause of your unhappiness night after night. In consequence, sleep deprivation may impair your focus and memory, as well as make you more prone to irritability. You may lose patience with your spouse and children more easily, miss crucial engagements with family and friends, or make a lot of blunders at work.
In the long run, psychological anguish may lead to physical health problems. A 2018 UK that included data from 16,485 persons examined the link between feelings of anxiety and depression, which were referred to as “psychological distress,” and health issues. According to the findings, even mild to moderate levels of distress may raise your risk of:
- illness of the cardiovascular system
- long-term illness of the lungs
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