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Psychological Distress

Psychological distress happens when you are faced with stressors that you are unable to cope with. Take action to improve your distress.

  • Make lifestyle changes.
  • Learn stress management techniques.
  • Work with a psychologist, social worker or psychotherapist.
  • Talk to your doctor about medications that could help you.

What Is Psychological Distress?

When you have been facing stress in your life for a while, you may feel overwhelmed.

Psychological distress describes the unpleasant feelings or emotions that you may have when you feel overwhelmed. These emotions and feelings can get in the way of your daily living and affect how you react to the people around you.

What Causes Psychological Distress?

Psychological distress happens when you are faced with stressors that you are unable to cope with.

These stressors could be:

  • traumatic experiences
  • major life events
  • everyday stressors such as workplace stress, family stress, and relationships
  • health issues

What Does Psychological Distress Feel Like?

We all react differently to stress and to changes in our lives.

Psychological distress can come out as:

  • fatigue
  • sadness
  • anxiety
  • avoidance of social situations
  • fear
  • anger
  • moodiness

How Does Psychological Distress Affect My Heart?

Psychological distress affects your body by:

  • releasing stress hormones into your blood that cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise.
  • causing inflammatory reactions in your body that can increase plaque build-up in your arteries.
  • causing your blood to become stickier. This puts you at risk for developing blood clots.

People with moderate levels of psychological distress are twice as likely to die from heart disease or other chronic illness as people with low levels of psychological distress. People with higher levels of distress have an even higher risk.

Moderate Levels of Distress

If you have moderate levels of psychological distress, you will have negative reactions to challenges in your daily life.

It is important to:

  • know what causes your distress (for example, are there certain activities or people that cause you distress?)
  • know what helps your distress

Take action if you have moderate psychological distress

  • Make lifestyle changes.
    • Monitor the daily activities that cause you distress.
    • Minimize these activities.
    • Talk to someone you trust about how to manage these stressors better.
  • Learn stress reduction skills such as:
    • diaphragmatic breathing techniques (learning to breathe from your diaphragm or stomach)
    • progressive muscle relaxation skills or yoga
    • visualization
    • affirmations
    • meditation
    • cognitive reframing (changing negative thoughts or learning to look at things differently)
    • take a stress reduction program

High Levels of Distress

If you have high levels of distress, you are likely to develop chronic problems that affect you emotionally and physically. This is because you are feeling the mental emotions of distress and your body’s physical reaction to stress for a long time.

When the emotions of distress lead to psychiatric problems (mental illness), it is harder to change.

People with heart problems who also have high levels of distress may have:

A high level of psychological distress doubles your risk of having more heart problems. If you have high levels of psychological distress you need to take steps to reduce stress.

Take action  if you have high psychological distress



The following books are recommended resources to help with Psychological Distress.

  1. Minding the Body, Mending the Mind. 2nd Edition (2007). Joan Borysenko, Bantam Books: New York
  2. Mind your Heart (2004). Aggie Casey and Herbert Benson, Free Press; New York
  3. Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness (2005). Richard O’Connor, Berkley Books: New York.
  4. 7 Easy Steps to Less Stress and Better Sleep (2011). Jaan Reitav.
  5. Stress Less: The New Science that Shows Women how to Rejuvenate the Body and the Mind (2010).
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