What is meant by distress? A common definition is, “great pain, anxiety, or sorrow; acute physical or mental suffering; affliction; trouble or a state of extreme necessity or misfortune.” From this definition we see that “distress” is more extreme than the average stress or feelings of unease.
A common prelude to distress is stress and frustration. It’s important to understand the triggers that set off these emotions because that will allow us to predict certain follow up feelings and behaviours. By being able to predict such feelings and behaviors, we can learn to be in control of them.
What are some of the most common triggers to stress, frustration and anger? These emotions usually come from one or more of four areas. First, and most common, people identify areas relating to other people as a common cause of distress. This includes family, friends, employers or teachers and peers. A second area comes from internal features such as concern for how one looks and acts, what one is accomplishing in life and worries about the future. It’s interesting to note that these stress triggers affect some people more than others, depending on age, culture and background. A third area of distress would be the changes in one’s life such as the loss of a relative or friend, moving, a new job or school. The fourth distress trigger area includes specific situations such as money worries, a family or friend in trouble and learning and skill problems.
Whether we are children, teens or adults, there are always people in our lives causing us some level of stress. When does that normal stress turn into distress and pain – and how can we deal with it?
Dr. Tian Dayton, in his book “Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance” discusses the effects of past trauma on one’s life today. As he notes, unfortunately what we don’t know can hurt us. By that we mean that what we can’t consciously feel can still have great power over us. Children from families with high levels of emotional pain and stress may find themselves moving into adult roles carrying burdens they aren’t fully aware of – and that interferes with happiness. Unresolved pain from yesterday gets transferred onto the relationships and circumstances of today – and is so hidden we can’t trace back to the origins of the pain. We think that our intense emotional reactions to circumstances in the present belong entirely to the situation that is triggering them and we are unconscious of what might be driving them from underneath. In fact, looking back on many situations I have discussed in previous columns, you can see this phenomenon in action. That is, people suffering today because of trauma from the past.
This is why it is important to seek counselling. “The key is how often you are feeling this sense of distress, how bad it gets, and how long it lasts; that is what can help determine the seriousness of your situation,” says Abby Aronowitz, PhD, the director of SelfHelpDirectives.com.
Experiences need to be processed so that we can let it go. If a person begins reacting to situations from a reactive, instinctual mode, the likelihood of developing more serious symptoms is great. Years after the stress is “over,” our body/mind are still holding onto it. If it occurred in the context of intimate relationships, intimate relationships may act as the trigger that causes unresolved fear, pain and resentment to re-emerge. The same way that a soldier may over-react to a car back firing hearing it as if it is a gunshot, an adult who has been hurt, as a child, in parental relationships may over-react to the stress of emotional intimacy when they become an adult and experience same, or similar, feelings of vulnerability and dependence that are a part of close connection.
There are a number of reasons why the sooner help can be offered the better:
- The person will be feeling very lonely and distressed, and, regarding children and teens, parents will be very anxious because they don’t know what to do.
- Difficulties that continue for a long time are likely to impede a person’s normal development, affecting progress at school or work, for example, or relationships with family and friends.
- Struggling with problems will sap the person’s confidence and self-esteem, making it increasingly hard for them to cope.
- Problems are usually much easier to deal with in the early stages, before they have become entrenched.
- Problems of a child or teen that are not dealt with may resurface in adult life and have a serious effect on the young person’s future.
Here is a list of symptoms you should not ignore. If any of these signs seem true for you, speak to your family doctor and request a complete physical. If everything checks out, ask your doctor if you might benefit from professional counselling.
* Sleep disturbances
* Dramatic weight fluctuations/changes in eating patterns
* Unexplained physical symptoms
* Difficulty managing anger or controlling your temper
* Compulsive/obsessive behaviors
* Memory problems
* Shunning social activity
* Chronic, tiredness, and lack of energy
* Intimacy is no longer fun
* Mood swings and erratic behavior noticed by more than one person
Of course, any one or more of these symptoms do not mean you are under emotional distress. Listen to your inner self while also listening to your friends and family. You will know when something is really wrong. Remember, there is nothing wrong with seeking help; the only wrong comes from denying ourselves that help.