Distress: Meaning & Signs

Distress: Meaning & Signs

Distress Meaning

The meaning of distress is to experience intense sorrow, pain, and suffering. The signs of distress could be different for everyone.  

Regardless of the type of symptoms, long-term distress can significantly affect your daily life, relationships, sleep cycles, appetite, and physical health. 

We may have many life experiences that are distressing or difficult to articulate. For example, feelings of love, jealousy, and sorrow are common, but they can be hard to put into words.  

What might be love for you could be considered jealousy by someone else. Similarly, distress could mean different things to different people.  

In general, emotional distress occurs when we experience highly unpleasant emotions. When you face difficulties in life, you may also feel discomfort in your heart, which could mean that you are experiencing distress. 

Ever felt like you can’t breathe right before your speech on the stage? That could count as distress. Or you may feel sorrow after losing a loved one – which could also be distress.  

Many people may use the term ‘distress’ to describe any unwanted or uncontrollable mood, including symptoms of conditions like depression or anxiety disorders and emotions like grief and anger.  

While distress is not an official disorder listed in the DSM-5, it can still feel so overwhelming that it could affect your daily life and functioning.  

Let’s examine the symptoms, causes, treatment, and strategies for minimising its impact on your life and well-being.  

Symptoms of Emotional Distress

Distress meaning is the same as emotional suffering. The term includes several symptoms, including signs from other mental health conditions like clinical depression and anxiety disorders 

People can have distress at any point in time or specifically when something traumatic occurs. Examples include failing an exam, losing a job position, having a fall-out with a friend, and so on. 

Distress from mental health conditions may last longer, are more severe, and may lead to developing a disorder.  

Symptoms of distress could include: 

  • Feeling dread, sorrow, hopeless, or overwhelmed 
  • Feeling guilt and ashamed without a reason 
  • Feeling sad all the time 
  • Being preoccupied with negative and unhelpful thoughts 
  • Having difficulty concentrating and paying attention 
  • Having sleep difficulties (eg sleeping too much or too little) 
  • Relying heavily on substances like alcohol 
  • Isolating from loved ones and social activities 
  • Having changes in appetite and mood 
  • Experiencing fatigue or exhaustion 
  • Finding it hard to engage in daily activities 
  • Experiencing uncontrollable anger 
  • Feeling pain that is difficult to articulate 

The symptoms of distress may vary depending on the person’s situation and whether they have any underlying mental health disorders.  

For example, a person with eating disorders may have distress that is presented as feeling the need to constantly exercise or having harmful thoughts about their body.  

A person feeling distressed

Causes of Distress

Just as symptoms of distress can vary among people, so can its causes and triggers.  

Sometimes, how we experience distress and the intensity we face could depend on our nervous system’s capacity at the time we are exposed to the trigger. 

For example, a person who is already in therapy and in recovery may know enough therapeutic tools to control their emotions at the time of the trigger.  

For these people, the symptoms of distress could appear less intensely in comparison to those who are struggling to cope by themselves. 

Moreover, some people may have different emotional temperaments. Someone who is emotional all the time (ie highly sensitive) may become more frazzled when there’s too much happening and, therefore, more distressed.  

Some common and specific triggers that could cause distress include: 

  • Experiencing trauma (either directly or vicariously) 
  • Living as a neurodivergent person  
  • Navigating ableism when living with a disability 
  • Having financial struggles 
  • Losing a job or a loved one 
  • Dealing with toxic co-workers or unrealistic work expectations 
  • Experiencing oppression or microaggressions 

Other common causes that could trigger distress include job dissatisfaction, family conflict, loneliness, and no friends 

Lastly, mental health conditions such as PTSD or generalised anxiety disorder may also cause distress. 

Are All Types of Distress Harmful?

Not all types of stress are usually harmful. Although prolonged stress can damage our bodies and mental health, temporary stress can be beneficial.  

In general, stress occurs due to the activation of the flight or fight response (ie sympathetic nervous system). This system shapes our fear responses by: 

  • Pumping blood into the muscles 
  • Increasing heart and breathing rate 
  • Releasing glucose into the bloodstream 

In some situations, the flight or fight response can be useful because it alerts us to potential danger and helps us protect ourselves from harm.  

For example, athletes with a decent amount of stress may gain physical benefits such as extra strength, energy, and oxygen, which could increase their overall performance.  

However, even this ‘good stress’ can become harmful if the sympathetic nervous system is always ‘switched on’ or always on alert.  

This response may be switched on all the time if a person feels stressed for an extended period. It can also happen if someone has post-traumatic stress disorder 

On the one hand, oxidative stress is released (in PTSD and chronic stress), which could damage the cell DNA. This damage can lead to tissue degeneration and contribute to diseases and ageing.  

On the other hand, short-term stress releases ‘oxidative eustress’ – a low-stress level that can lead to efficiency in the body’s functioning. 

For example, exercise can increase stress, which could improve your physical and mental health. However, relying on substances like alcohol can lead to distress and cause severe health issues.  

Coping With Distress

Distress meaning and signs can mean different things to different people.  

Distress is not a weakness or a personality flaw. Instead, it is a normal and common emotion that can affect anyone at any time.  

What’s more important than completely avoiding distress is learning how to prevent and cope with the symptoms in a way that the feeling doesn’t further trigger you.  

Following certain self-care tools can also make the signs more manageable.  

1. Acceptance

A person learning how to accept their distress meaning and deal with it

In times of distress, we are often consumed by our emotions and spend a lot of time resisting the reality of the situation. For example, we may constantly think, ‘Why me?’ ‘Why now?’ 

You may think thoughts such as: 

  • “Why does this always happen to me?” 
  • “I don’t deserve this.” 
  • “This is not fair.” 
  • “What if I didn’t agree to this [task]?” 
  • “What if this never happened?” 

While these questions are valid, they could further trigger the symptoms of distress.  

However, by accepting your situation or the way things occurred, you could learn how to reduce the intensity and duration of distress.  

Acceptance does not mean that we pretend to enjoy the distress. Instead, it means letting the emotion pass through us without questioning or judging its existence.  

When we avoid distress, we may not understand the cause and what our emotions are trying to communicate with us. This misunderstanding can make you feel like the emotion itself is a threat to your nervous system.  

Labelling these emotions, however, can help you make sense of them and help your brain release you from the fight or flight state.  

2. Emotional Toolkit

Sometimes, when you feel distress, your emotions can completely take control over you, which may result in you forgetting the important coping tools you usually turn to.  

That’s why deciding which tools help you best in advance and preparing an emotional toolkit for the future can be helpful. 

In other words, try to create a list of all the tools you usually use that help you snap out of the distress or panic.  

You can DIY a separate box to store all your toolkits or maintain a list of things you can quickly turn to when you need support.  

Some techniques you can list down include: 

  • Deep breathing exercises 
  • Yoga poses for reference 
  • Journalling prompts to calm down 
  • Simple joys like scented candles, flowers, chocolates, or favourite time 

In your toolkit box, you can put soothing items such as: 

  • Pictures of people, animals, and places you love 
  • Your favourite scent 
  • A book that helps you feel happy 
  • List of affirmation cards 
  • Letters you may have received from your loved ones 

This way, whenever you feel distressed, you can quickly use some of these tools from your emotional toolkits.  

3. Self-Talk

On average, people may have around 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day. You may be surprised to know what percentage of these thoughts are negative or harmful. 

According to research, 80% of people have negative thoughts daily. Imagine the harm they could cause if they think about them continuously for several months. That is the power of thoughts and self-talk.  

Negative self-talk can lead to a lack of motivation, confidence, and feelings of helplessness. Negativity can affect our outlook and mental stamina.  

Incorporating positive self-talk can take patience and practice. It can be especially hard if you are used to being negative towards yourself.  

Learning how to think positively can help you reframe your thoughts, change how you approach distress and solve problems.  

If you are distressed, give yourself some time to intentionally talk positively to yourself. You can take a short break and tell yourself affirmations, go on a lunch break, or talk out loud about the things you are proud of. 

You can even consider writing a note or letter to yourself. It could be something like, “Today is a long and hard day, but I trust you and know you can get through it. You got this!” 


Distress meaning and signs can become overwhelming and affect daily life if not addressed immediately.  

If the self-care strategies are not working, you can seek professional Therapy in Singapore. The treatment usually involves identifying your triggers and learning therapeutic skills to reduce distress.  

Your triggers may not always be easily identified. However, talking to a counsellor or even your loved ones can help you see signs that you may have otherwise missed.  

For example, if you are distressed in a safe environment where your friends are with you, you may find it hard to identify the exact trigger. 

However, a counsellor can ask you introspective questions to connect the dots and analyse if any negative childhood experiences could have triggered your distress in the environment, even if you had perceived it as safe.  

Cognitive behavioural therapy is one of the most effective and commonly used interventions to identify and address sources of distress.  

Some psychotherapists may also use mindfulness-based approaches such as acceptance and commitment therapy to help you cope with distress and develop long-term strategies.  

Review their full profiles to determine if a Therapist is the right fit for you. Here, you can read about each professional’s: 

  • Academic background 
  • Qualifications 
  • Clinical expertise 
  • Therapeutic approaches 
  • Personal interests 
  • Therapy style 

However, remember that finding the right Therapist can take some time. Give yourself and the therapy process enough time to work. 

If you find that the match isn’t quite right, feel free to contact us for help with selecting a new Therapist!