Emotional distress can be debilitating. The following coping strategies can help you deal with distress in a healthy and productive way.
Stress is a natural part of life. Sometimes it can even be a helpful force for motivation. But distress isn’t quite the same thing as stress.
Distress causes many of the same symptoms as anxiety and depression. It can cause sleeplessness, worry, and lack of focus. But it’s possible to find healthy ways to cope with and manage distress.
It can take time to identify distress and develop practical management tools. So try to be patient with yourself and keep an open mind about what might work for you.
Stress is a short-term experience that typically ends when the stressful event or situation passes. Unlike stress, distress doesn’t go away when the activating event is over. It’s a prolonged period of emotional or psychological anxiety, hardship, or worry.
Distress often results from a stressful situation combined with a pattern or way of thinking that prolongs feelings of stress.
Distress symptoms can include:
- having little to no energy
- sleep disturbances
- unexplained aches and pains
- feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
- difficulty in your home or work life
- excessive use of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs
- feelings of guilt without a clear cause
- excessive worry
Researchers in the 2016 study noted that the body seems to act as a warning system. Many strategies for managing distress can help you get in tune with your body and how you’re feeling.
Distress isn’t always inevitable, though.
A 2017 systematic review suggests that having higher self-esteem and a lower tendency toward perfectionism may make you less likely to experience distress in the face of perceived failure. By building resilience and self-confidence, you may be better equipped to deal with distress.
Try to be patient with yourself. You can limit distress, but it may take time. It can sometimes take months or years to develop successful coping skills. Some healthy coping mechanisms will be easy to add to your daily routine. Others will take time to learn.
1. Identifying causes and triggers
Changes in your personal and professional relationships, employment, or financial stability can often cause feelings of distress. Distress can also happen when you feel a lack of control over your circumstances.
Learning to recognize the physical symptoms of distress, like stomachaches or sleeplessness, can help. Consider using a journal to write down the previous day’s events and look for patterns that connect your feelings with important events or conversations.
2. Deep breathing
Deep breathing floods your body with oxygen and can help reduce physical tension, according to one 2016 study.
You might find it helpful to incorporate deep breathing into your routine.
A deep breathing exercise might involve:
- taking slow deep breaths while counting to five
- feeling your stomach expand outward on the in-breath
- slowly releasing your breath to a count of five
- allowing your stomach to come back toward the spine
- repeating until you feel calmer
3. Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation involves the progressive and conscious tightening and relaxing of your body’s muscles.
A 2015 study involving 101 participants found that regular practice helped reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is a powerful stress hormone.
If you need a bit more direction before starting your first session, consider browsing YouTube for videos that guide you through the process.
4. Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation involves focusing your thoughts on the present and meditation. Meditation uses deep breathing and gentle guidance to center your thoughts.
One review from 2016 found that mindfulness meditation helped students better deal with college-related stress.
Another review of studies from the same year found that mindfulness meditation improved depression symptoms and quality of life in people with chronic pain.
It takes some practice to successfully use mindfulness meditation. You might find apps like Headspace or Calm helpful for guiding you through a meditation session.
5. Regular exercise
Physical activity is good for your mental and physical health. But you don’t have to run a marathon to manage distress.
A 2020 study involving teens with symptoms of depression found that even light physical activity may improve depressive symptoms.
To limit distress in your everyday life, consider adding a daily walk, 10- to 15-minute yoga session, gardening, or other short, simple forms of physical activity to your routine.
Many people experience distress, so you’re not alone. If you’re experiencing distress that interferes with your day-to-day activities, talking with a mental health professional might be a good idea. They can help you develop coping skills and work through the causes of your distress.
If you’re not sure where to find a counselor or therapist, try contacting your insurance provider for a list of accepted professionals within your network.
Many national organizations are also devoted to helping people find access to mental health care, including:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- Mental Health America
Help is available
If you think you may harm yourself due to distress, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Distress is the result of ongoing stress. Its symptoms are similar to some common mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression.
By identifying the causes and triggers for distress, you can develop and incorporate effective coping strategies into your daily routine. Healthy coping skills may include daily meditation and regular exercise.
And if the amount of distress you’re experiencing feels like too much to handle, you might also consider seeing a mental health professional.