Understanding Emotional Distress: Naming It and Claiming It

The Magazine: Understanding Emotional Distress: Naming It and Claiming It

It’s an important part of overall health — and research shows that emotional health can improve overtime. But why does emotional health matter? And what are the implications of not prioritizing emotional health at an individual and societal level? Let’s take a closer look.

What is emotional health?

Emotional health is the ability to control one's thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It is a form of self-awareness that enables us to cope with life's challenges and bounce back from setbacks. Being emotionally healthy doesn't mean you're constantly happy –– it just means you are aware and able to deal with your emotions, whether they are positive or negative.

Why is emotional health important?

Emotional health contributes to overall health. People who are emotionally healthy feel good about themselves and tend to have healthy relationships. It also affects physical health –– research demonstrates that there is a connection between a positive mental state and physical signs of good health.

What is emotional distress?

Emotional distress has both physical and psychological features. It’s a feeling we all recognize: heart and breathing rates increase and muscles tense, as blood flow is diverted from the abdominal organs to the brain. As a regular emotion, this is a healthy, functional “fight or flight” response that enables the body to take extra precautions to protect itself — the body is essentially preparing for crisis. But emotional distress in the absence of a real crisis interferes with both our daily lives and long-term health. Nearly two-thirds of those estimated 40 million adults struggling with emotional distress are women.


While some cases of emotional distress are short-term and perfectly normal, many people experience chronic and debilitating emotional distress that can drastically impact their health, overall quality of life and ability to function. In fact, evidence suggests that people with emotional distress are at greater risk for developing many other chronic health conditions. And sadly, it has become a silent epidemic in this country, with about 30% of those with emotional distress going through life without help.

Emotional distress refers to many feelings, including:

  • Fear
  • Nervousness
  • Paranoia
  • Sweating
  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Sleeping issues

So what causes it?

The root causes of emotional distress are broad and complex, ranging from parental pressure during childhood, financial problems, stress, traumatic experiences, and even loneliness and spending too much time online — and every case of emotional distress is different, with causes that must be identified by the individual.

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