For most people, life is not a pond of quiet, unruffled water. It is common for it to flow more like a river, full of steep meanders and sections where the flow intensifies and declines, at a fickle and unpredictable pace.

Letting yourself be carried away by such a current implies avoiding the obstacles that will usually arrive, with the purpose of continuing to sail beyond the horizon. And the fact is that, by assuming the helm of our own existence, we inevitably accept to face the ups and downs inherent to its nature.

This circumstance is complex; and it is closely related to personal and social issues as diverse as family life, studies, work, etc. The problems in any of them may be the reason for what we know as emotional discomfort .

In this article we will go deeper into what this emotional discomfort is. Where does it come from and how does it usually manifest itself, as well as the scope it has on the day-to-day life of those who suffer it. In the last part we will talk about its therapeutic approach.

What is emotional distress

Emotional distress is an extensive and complex concept, which has been used extensively in clinical and research settings, but which has often not been defined in a clear and operational way . For this reason, sometimes there is a certain “confusion” when trying to refer to it, and even the limits that separate it from what is a psychological disorder are diluted. It is true that the vast majority of problems in the area of mental health have some degree of emotional discomfort (mild, severe, etc.), but the isolated presence of the latter does not always imply psychopathology.

Thus, the first approach to this concept implies recognizing that the subjective experience of emotional discomfort does not in any way mean that the individual is going through some mental disorder, but simply that he is affectively representing everyday situations that bring him some suffering or concern . In this assumption, the emotional response would not reach the necessary intensity to satisfy the diagnostic criteria required in the manuals in use (as would be the case with the DSM-5), although this does not prevent one from living with gaze and regret.

Those who suffer from emotional distress explicitly use phrases such as “I feel bad”, “I’m down” or “I’m flat” to describe their experience; which is usually the result of some isolated and recognizable event or the accumulation of several of them in a discrete period of time. In any case, it indicates a decrease in the sense of well-being with respect to a previous moment, and in general the subject feels deprived of the joy that he was once able to feel in his own skin. On some occasions it is not possible to identify what the trigger has been, so a certain disorientation is added.

When sensations are deepened beyond the emotional, they often refer to the existence of physical symptoms for which no organic root can be found to explain them. The most notable are headache (headaches), digestive disorders (such as diarrhea or constipation) and certain muscular complaints. All of this requires a physical exploration that rarely provides a finding capable of filiating them, and that very often precipitates the planning of symptomatic approaches that do not tackle the “core” of what really motivates them (use of analgesics or anxiolytics with myorelaxant properties, for example).

These indefinite and diffuse physical symptoms can be accompanied by intimate nuances of enormous existential importance , such as sadness, the shadow of an “inner emptiness” that causes restlessness and a constant experience of nervousness or irritability. As time goes by, it is common that the concern becomes more accentuated and other problems arise, such as insomnia or persistent fatigue. It is at this point in the evolution of emotional discomfort where there is a greater risk that it will transcend into a more structured psychopathological picture of greater clinical relevance (especially depression and anxiety).

This is such a prevalent problem that it has been estimated (according to various studies) that 30% to 60% of the people who go to their primary care physician are experiencing it . It is more frequent in women than in men (70% in the first case), considering that such discrepancy is due to different ways of dealing with emotions and to the potential existence of different stressors between both groups (they are more “involved” in the care tasks that are added to their work responsibility, for example).

It is common that the problem cannot be detected in time , so that it becomes firmly established or progresses to a complete disorder, in addition to motivating hyperfrequency to the family doctor or other specialists.

Why does emotional distress occur?

As can be seen, living with such emotional discomfort results in a severe erosion of the quality of life and of all the dimensions that make up the reality of human beings: from the social to the individual, passing through the vital areas in which both participate (such as the academic or work). What is really true is that, in spite of not being a disorder as such, the symptom that occupies us also precipitates a decrease in the self-image that alters the normal development of personally significant projects.

Below we review just a few of the basic reasons why a person might suffer from such a circumstance. However, it should be noted that its potential causes are virtually infinite , since they depend on the way the individual constructs his own world.

1. Academic problems

Academic problems are generators of emotional discomfort, especially during adolescence , since this is the evolutionary period in which failures in this area can have the greatest impact on well-being. The difficulty in obtaining the desired results (grades), the belief that there are not enough resources to face the progressive demands of the educational system or the doubts at the time of choosing the curricular itinerary, are frequent causes of suffering in this stage of maturity. Also the excessive burden of responsibility, and the periodic evaluation of performance (examinations or exposures to peers), can trigger it.

2. Work problems

The world of work has been, especially in recent years, a clear source of emotional distress for millions of people around the world. From the barriers that young people have to overcome to access stable jobs, to the endless situation of unemployment in which countless people are immersed from the fifth decade of life.

Also it is frequent that circumstances such as precariousness, overload in the workplace or insufficient wages (depending on the growth of the cost of living) can be erected as reasons for such suffering.

3. Family problems

The presence of family problems of many different kinds, but especially conflicts between group members, generate a lot of emotional pain for the people involved.

Such situations may include material or energy shortages, difficulties in accessing a dwelling, psychological or organic disorders in any of the people who are part of the unit or discussions between the parties that do not find any point of agreement from which to resolve them. Finally, emotional distress is also common in cases where the distribution of tasks is unfair or unbalanced.

4. Relationship problems

Relational problems, in the case that common strategies to face adversities have not been consolidated , could be an implicit cause of emotional discomfort. In this case, an endless number of variables are involved, which are related to the satisfaction of romantic expectations or to disagreements about important aspects of coexistence.

Maintaining an unsatisfactory bond for fear of loneliness, or any other additional cause (not causing pain to someone you care about, for example), is one of the most common reasons why this situation emerges within a dyadic bond.

5. Excess responsibility

Situations of family, work or personal overload , were postulated for a long time (and continue to be so today) as one of the factors underlying the accentuated risk of women referring to emotional discomfort.

And it is very true that the intimate perception that our responsibilities exceed our resources, or that the tasks that are “demanded” from us enter into frontal opposition to each other, connect directly with the phenomenon. The above is accentuated when the person is also forced to give up his leisure or recreational time.

6. Social problems

The difficulties in establishing quality relationships with our peer group, or with the work team, are very often pointed out as very powerful triggers for the problem at hand. Reluctance to ask for help, or to seek collaboration, may also be at its base.

In any case, today it is known that an insufficient social support network is an extraordinary risk factor in terms of emotional distress, as well as unwanted loneliness (“imposed” by circumstances). Experiences of rejection, uprooting or ostracism also generate emotional distress.

7. Health problems

Health problems, and more specifically serious/chronic diseases, have emerged in recent years as the most commonly researched area of life in terms of emotional distress.

We know that the diagnosis of a relevant pathology, the health recovery process, the use of certain drugs (chemotherapy, for example) and the adaptations in daily roles, suppose a succession of personal challenges in which an inner fight comes to concur. In the cases in which this discomfort reaches the entity of a mental disorder, the participation of a health psychologist is unavoidable .

How can it be addressed?

All the situations shown in the previous lines potentially generate significant psychological suffering. Although in the first moments this does not reach the necessary intensity to be considered a psychological disorder, it is expected that it will evolve to a picture of anxiety or depression if an adequate therapeutic approach is not articulated. For this reason it is very important to seek the guidance of an appropriately trained mental health professional , who will make a good diagnosis and its corresponding treatment.

Increasing knowledge about emotions, and learning to regulate the way they are lived, is a key objective of intervention in this context. It translates into a greater ability to recognize, identify, discriminate, repair, communicate and use each of them; so that the management of internal experiences is optimized. From this, the person acquires the ability to go deeper into their needs and desires, this being an essential first step in building a comfortable daily life.

In addition, it can be interesting to teach problem-solving procedures, since sometimes “bad” choices have worked as a support for the adverse situation that may be occurring. Such strategies usually affect the description of the problem, the generation of alternatives, the assessment of all the courses of action and the commitment to the solution that has been selected. This technique has come to demonstrate its effectiveness as a resource for the prevention of depression or anxiety in the case of people in specific situations of vulnerability.

Finally, enhancing the social skills available to the person (and especially assertiveness) helps to significantly reduce emotional distress. Through a program such as this it is possible to provide the individual with appropriate communication skills, so that he or she can successfully mediate in all negotiation situations whose purpose is to alleviate responsibilities or to find the agreement with which to solve a persistent conflict.

Bibliographic references:

  • Crusader, J.A. (2012). Screnning for Emotional Distress in Cancer Patients and Their Families. Psycho-Oncology, 9, 231-232.
  • Moreno, A., Krikorian, A. and Gonzalez, C. (2015). Emotional distress, anxiety and depression in Colombian oncology patients and their relationship with perceived competence. Advances in Latin American Psychology, 33, 517-529.