We all know that you can’t have sunny days year-round. It has to rain sometimes. The same goes for good and bad days at work or in life.
But sometimes, the bad days start to outnumber the good ones. And when that happens, the accompanying negativity leads to overwhelming — and sometimes debilitating — emotions.
Often, these are brief periods that we can overcome with some patience and positive thinking. However, there’s a chance that those negative emotions feel like they’re taking over, leading you to experience emotional distress and struggle to find a way forward.
Learning what emotional distress is will help you understand when a feeling is fleeting or cause for concern, as well as how to get yourself out of a slump.
What’s emotional distress?
Emotional distress happens when negative, uncomfortable, or distressing emotions impact you so deeply that it disrupts your daily quality of life.
Sadness, frustration, anguish, and other negative emotions are all normal reactions to life’s stresses. But when those emotions affect you simultaneously or in excess, they might become too difficult to manage. This signals emotional distress or a possible underlying condition might be present.
While emotional distress can be difficult to diagnose formally, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and related health problems published by the World Health Organization, has outlined the following underlying life problems as potential causes:
Emotional distress is difficult to diagnose, and is regularly confused with more serious mental illnesses like chronic anxiety and depression. Yet, unlike chronic anxiety or depression, emotional distress can often be alleviated with self care and wellness treatments and psychological therapies.
Focusing on managing your emotions can limit the distress and limit the negativity to help you function.
If you’re experiencing difficulties in several areas of your life, they might compound to exacerbate your distress. Likewise, emotional distress is often confused with short-lived or fleeting feelings of sadness, frustration, or stress.
The distinction between distress and other human emotional responses is how long it lasts and how forcefully the emotions impact your day-to-day routine.
For example, sadness is a natural part of mourning the death of a loved one. But if your grief extends over a prolonged period and inhibits your ability to go to work or care for yourself, it’s likely emotional distress that should be addressed with lifestyle changes or a mental health professional.
Common symptoms of emotional distress
Emotional distress is incredibly personal and impacts everyone in different ways, but here are some common warning signs that your emotional well-being is compromised, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
Experiencing interruptions to your sleep schedule, whether that’s oversleeping or not sleeping enough
Changing your eating habits drasticallyNoticing changes in your digestion, from nausea to diarrhea
Distancing yourself from your relationships, responsibilities, or hobbies
Having little to no energy
Experiencing sexual dysfunction
Psychosomatic physical symptoms, like stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, back pain, feeling sickly, and other unexplainable physical pains
Feeling generally hopeless or helpless
Excessive smoking or substance abuse
Feeling worry or constant guilt
Experiencing self-harm ideation or behavior
Having crying spells or aggressive outbursts
Possible causes for emotional distress
Everyone reacts to individual situations differently. What may catalyze a powerful emotional reaction for you might barely register for another person.
Let’s dig deeper into some common causes of emotional distress in different areas of your life.
What does emotional distress in the workplace look like?
The average person spends a colossal chunk of their life at work — as much as one-third of your life, or about 90,000 hours working over your lifetime, according to most estimates.
It’s no wonder that work can be such a powerful stressor. People depend on work for their livelihood and potentially their social fulfillment and an overall sense of purpose, too.
It makes sense when things get rough at work, you’re at risk of disruptive mental anguish. Here are a few work situations that could negatively impact your mental health:
Pay inequity: Feeling like your salary doesn’t match your skill set, experience, and value can be incredibly frustrating or degrading. The added impacts of rising living costs and worries about covering basic monthly expenses can cause profound negative emotions like stress, worry, and anger.
Concerns about job security: Feeling insecure about the future of your job may motivate you to work a little harder. Yet, job insecurity isn’t a healthy motivator. You may be so overcome with anxiety, resentment, or mental exhaustion that it cancels out any advances in your job performance — a recipe for emotional suffering.
Toxic relationships: Negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress from toxic managers or coworkers creates and amplifies negative experiences. This can increase your chance of experiencing burnout, and can severely impact your self-confidence.
Overwork: It’s easy to get caught up with work. A constant supply of push notifications, understaffing, and blurry work-life boundaries can make signing off at the end of the day difficult. Feelings of fatigue and stress might fill you with despair, frustration, and worry, which make tackling an already never-ending to-do list harder to complete.
Disruptive work environment: Not everybody thrives in office environments. For some, background noise, office clutter, or interruptions from coworkers or managers can be so disruptive to workflow that it causes enormous stress, resentment, and frustration. If you work from home, a busy home life in the background could distract you from getting things done on time, too.
What causes emotional distress in your personal life?
Your ability to cultivate meaningful relationships, fulfilling hobbies, and mental and physical wellness habits are all pieces of the puzzle that make up your overall emotional well-being. And when your sense of balance is off-keel, it can harm your mental well-being.
Here are a few common examples of emotional distress in your personal life.
Major life changes: Humans naturally look for balance. This explains our fight-or-flight instinct: when we sense a potential threat, our brain sends out signals that prompt you to retreat back to safety.
Major life changes, like experiencing a breakup, becoming a parent, moving somewhere new, becoming an empty nester, or beginning retirement throw off your sense of equilibrium and cause an extreme emotional reaction. Even if it’s a good type of stress, it might overwhelm you.
Problems with relationships: Healthy relationships buffer your reactions to stressful situations. If you feel satisfied with your relationships, you’re more likely to handle challenging situations. Feelings of neglect, conflict, and frustration in your relationships are difficult to handle on their own, but they can also compound difficult situations happening in other areas of your life.
Traumatic events: Experiencing traumatic or life-threatening events, like a car accident, assault, abuse, the sudden death of a loved one, physical injuries, and more can create profound mental suffering.
Trauma is a shock to your system, and as you attempt to make sense of the event, it’s normal to feel overcome with grief, despair, or resentment. If left untreated, trauma or PTSD can follow you through the course of your lifetime.
4 tips for coping, preventing, or addressing emotional distress
Wellness techniques can help reconnect you to your mind and body and get you through tough times. Here are a few ways to prevent or address emotional distress.
1. Seek help
Having a safe space to experience and express difficult or painful emotions can help you recover from intense emotional distress, so don’t be afraid to seek help. Likewise, regular therapy, counseling, or coaching can be a preventive measure.
It helps you get in touch with your feelings, accept your emotions, and identify the values that will help you lead the life you want to live. Finding more positivity in your life will limit feelings of anxiety and negativity, which can help mitigate your distress.
Plus, there are specialized treatments or therapists to deal with specific life experiences, like grief therapy or therapists that specialize in addressing childhood trauma. Consider inquiring about a free consultation to ensure that your choice of counseling, psychology, or psychiatry is right for your specific needs.
2. Understand your triggers
If you struggle to identify the source of your stress, understanding your stressors is an important first step in being more mindful of your emotional reactions. Developing a better self-awareness is an important tool for being kind to yourself and safeguarding yourself from situations that harm your mental well-being.
If the combined stress of face-to-face interactions, coworker interruptions, noisy backgrounds, and time wasted in a commute fill you with a sense of dread, you have that awareness to speak with your manager and request a hybrid or remote work situation.
3. Healthy lifestyle
A regular schedule of uninterrupted sleep, regular exercise, and a healthy diet can lessen the risk factors for mental health conditions. A healthy lifestyle fills you with energy, and strong mental well-being helps you combat moments of distress and difficulty.
Be patient with yourself. Getting your mind and body into shape doesn’t happen overnight or without hiccups. But solid sleep hygiene, exercise routines, and healthy foods help you support yourself when you most need it.
4. Legal recourse
Intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress from a difficult coworker or manager can seriously impact your emotions and long-term career path. If you’re unable to resolve abuse at work, you may be able to make an emotional distress claim with a personal injury lawyer.
However, legal processes can be long and traumatic. Taking legal action is a decision you should weigh carefully. Talk to your support network, colleagues, or a counselor to decide whether the benefits of legal action outweigh the potential distress of a lawsuit.
A life full of balance
Feeling down is natural. But learning what emotional distress is and how to regulate your emotions are valuable tools to find a better way forward.
If you’re overcome with negative or uncomfortable emotions, seek help, practice self-reflection, and analyze your lifestyle. Even if life isn’t always full of sunshine and roses, you can always improve the view when life gets a little cloudy.