Most people dislike feeling uncomfortable, and there are many different ways that we can feel that emotion — we can be hot, cold, tired, in pain, hungry, unwell, and the list could go on.
But there is also emotional discomfort, or what is often called distress. We may not like it, but experiencing uncomfortable emotions is a natural part of life.
However, there is a difference between disliking unpleasant emotions and experiencing unpleasant emotions as unbearable and needing to get rid of them.
Being intolerant of experiencing emotional discomfort can interfere with living a fulfilling life. This intolerance can also escalate any emotional discomfort we might be experiencing.
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, in others they may trigger unpleasant feelings that make it impossible to cope and carry on with normal activities.
Those of us who experience these unpleasant feelings and have difficulty coping are experiencing psychological distress.
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.
For some, psychological distress is a continuum with 'mental health' and 'mental illness' at opposing ends.
I myself would have a broader view — but let’s go with this way of thinking for the moment.
Causes of Psychological Distress
Traumatic experiences can come from many aspects of life. In fact, I can’t imagine a life where distress is not experienced. Causes can include:
l Cancer and other medical illness
l Redundancy /starting a new job
l Being a victim of bullying
l Adverse school experiences
l Adverse work experiences
l Infertility and IVF
l Mental health difficulties
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 exactly same way.
For example, suppose that you and your mother were in a car accident and both experienced psychological distress as a result.
You have both been in the same crash, yet while you experience sleep disturbances, fatigue, and sadness, your mother experiences anxiety related to driving and memory problems and avoids social activities.
Five Steps to Managing Distress
Step 1: Recognise Your Triggers
You need to first have some awareness of the common things that trigger your distress. These triggers could be external, such as certain situations, events, people, cues in the environment, etc. Or they could be internal, such as certain thoughts, memories, images, bodily sensations, etc.
A good way to get in touch with your common triggers is to think of past examples of not being able to deal with distress — that is, past times you used your old escape methods ie, situational avoidance, reassurance seeking or checking, distraction and suppression, alcohol or drugs, binge eating, excessive sleep.
2. Know Your Warning Signs
In addition to being aware of common triggers of your distress, it is also useful to be aware of the warning signs that tell you that you are having trouble dealing with your distress, and hence need to focus on using your action plan.
Warning signs are the feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, and behavioural urges or actions that signal you are feeling overwhelming distress.
3. Commit To Dropping Your Escape Methods
Once you acknowledge your distress, via being more aware of your triggers and warning signs, you are then in a better position to make a commitment to dropping your usual escape methods. The commitment you make might sound something like: “I will try to tolerate this distress, rather than using my old habit of drinking to dull the pain” or “I will stay with this feeling, rather than avoiding situations that make me feel this way”.
The main thing is making your actions a conscious choice, rather than an automatic habit.
4. Accept Your Distress
In essence, recognise and allow the emotion; watch the emotion by detaching from it, describing it and using imagery; be present while focused on a task or your breath; and finally deal with the inevitable emotional comebacks.
5. Improve Your Distress Tolerance
Use all the distress improvement activities in your armoury. Some will be active, for example walking in nature or swimming. Others may be soothing, such as talking with friends, having a cup of tea or reading. Essentially, use those you have discovered work for you, including the words of encouragement that can help you through the moment of distress, and aspects of problem solving that may be relevant when you do have some control over the situation distressing you.
Over time, distress will still be there in your life but you are less likely to be overwhelmed by it.
Dr Eddie Murphy runs a psychological and counselling service in Portarlington, Co Laois. If you are organising a speaker or training for school, community, voluntary, sporting or work groups, call Dr Eddie on 087 1302899 or go to www.facebook.com/ dr.eddie.murphy.psychologist. Dr. Eddie Murphy provides Online CBT to Stop Depression and Stop Anxiety at. www.stratushealthcare.ie/