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What Is Psychological Distress? - Definition, Lesson & Quiz

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Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Information Technology, and Literacy and has a master's in counseling psychology and business administration.

Psychological distress is a general term that is used to describe unpleasant feelings or emotions that impact your level of functioning. Learn about the causes of psychological distress, the symptoms, and more.

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Think of a time when you felt sadness. Maybe it was after losing a loved one or losing your job. How did you respond to the situation? While some people may have no difficulty dealing with these events, they may trigger unpleasant feelings that make it impossible to cope and carry on with normal activities in others. For those of us who experience these unpleasant feelings and have difficulty coping, we are experiencing psychological distress.

What is Psychological Distress?

Psychological distress is a general term used to describe unpleasant feelings or emotions that impact your level of functioning. In other words, it is psychological discomfort that interferes with your activities of daily living. Psychological distress can result in negative views of the environment, others, and the self. Sadness, anxiety, distraction, and symptoms of mental illness are manifestations of psychological distress.

Since no two people experience one event the exact same way, psychological distress is a subjective experience. That is, the severity of psychological distress is dependent upon the situation and how we perceive it. We can think of psychological distress as a continuum with 'mental health' and 'mental illness' at opposing ends. As we continue to experience different things, we travel back and forth on the continuum at different times throughout our lives.

Causes of Psychological Distress

Traumatic experiences, the death of a loved one, and divorce are causes of psychological distress. Psychological distress can be thought of as a maladaptive response to a stressful situation. Psychological distress occurs when external events or stressors place demands upon us that we are unable to cope with. For example, we may struggle to accept that a loved one is no longer with us. As a result, we become sad and have trouble getting out of bed, we are unable to focus at work, and we lose interest in social activities.

Major life transitions, i.e. moving to a new state or graduating from college, can be a source of psychological stress if you are unable to cope with the demands that these transitions place on you or have difficulty adjusting to the new situation. Sudden unexpected events, such as a loved one's death of a heart attack or being fired from a job, can also cause psychological distress.

Even everyday stressors, such as traffic, have the potential to cause psychological distress. Some other sources of psychological distress include:

  • Cancer and other medical illness
  • Divorce
  • Starting a new job
  • Being a victim of bullying
  • Adverse school experiences
  • Adverse work experiences
  • Infertility
  • Mental illness

Symptoms of Psychological Distress

As we previously stated, psychological distress is a subjective experience. Just as no two people experience events in the same way, no two people manifest psychological distress in the exact same way. For example, suppose that you and your mother were in a car accident and both experienced psychological distress as a result. Yet, while you experience sleep disturbances, fatigue, and sadness, your mother experiences anxiety related to driving, memory problems, and avoids social activities.

Other symptoms of psychological distress include:

  • Weight gain
  • Anger management problems
  • Obsessive thoughts or compulsions
  • Physical symptoms not explained by a medical condition
  • Decreased pleasure in sexual activities
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Reckless acts, i.e. excessive shopping sprees
  • Belief that others can hear your thoughts
  • Belief that your thoughts are not your own
  • Strange or unusual behaviors, i.e. wearing your clothing backwards

Effects of Psychological Distress

Just as mental illness can influence all aspects of your life, psychological distress can also impact your functioning. Psychological distress can interfere with your work performance. For example, you may find it harder to concentrate and may find yourself easily distracted while working. Students who experience psychological distress may find it hard to focus on their school work or in class, especially if they are experiencing hallucinations or delusions.

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