Stress vs Distress: How To Know The Difference

Do you know the difference between emotional distress and stress?

You may think of them as one and the same, but they’re not.

Emotional distress is an automatic physiological reaction, while stress is human-made.

Here are three steps to distinguish between the two – and manage them both.

Emotional Distress vs. Stress: 3 Steps To Know The Difference and Manage Both

1. Recognize distress.

Emotional distress is an upsetting feeling, an internal May Day call signaling hurt or fear that disturbs our equilibrium.

It alerts our mind-body that we may be threatened, or in perceived danger.

It’s an affective state that usually occurs in reaction to an external trigger.

An example of distress caused by fear occurred when a client arrived at my office one evening flushed with emotion.

She started talking before she’d even sat down, explaining in rapid fire speech that she’d mailed in her health insurance payment two months before and had just been notified by letter that her payment was overdue.

I validated her distress, saying that anyone in this situation would be concerned.

A typical instance of distress caused by hurt is illustrated by a client whose neighbors had held a party and hadn’t invited her and her husband.

My client knew a party was happening at the neighbors’ house because there were a bunch of balloons tied to the mailbox and cars were parked up and down the street.

She was deeply hurt and couldn’t imagine what she or her husband had done to deserve such an omission.

2. Avoid turning emotional distress into self-induced stress.

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You know you’re not simply distressed, but adding stress to upset when you keep circling around a topic, won’t think about anything else, are unwilling to be distracted from it, and refuse to let it go.

This reversion to a distressed state is called rumination and will only elevate your uncomfortable feelings, when your goal should be to calm yourself down.

A better way to manage the feeling is to:

Here’s how my client in the first example inadvertently added stress to her distress.

She calmed down for a nanosecond, then began worrying about whether someone had stolen her check and would use her social security number on the accompanying form to steal her identity.

No matter what I said—we don’t know what happened, there was nothing she could do right now, she could call her insurance company, bank and even the post office in the morning.

She continued to fret aloud.

The more she catastrophized, the more stressed she became.

My other client did something similar.

She kept repeating how well she and her husband had gotten along with their neighbors and related all the fun times they’d had together over the years.

Rather than wonder if there were other reasons that her neighbors might be having a party and not invite her, she could NOT get beyond thinking that they were angry at her and letting her know it by purposely excluding her from their festivities.

In fact, in spite of my best efforts to help her calm down, she was more worked up when she left my office than when she walked in.

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3. Soothe the original distress and move on.

We cannot avoid emotional distress in life and must accept it as something that every one of us will be challenged by at times.

Although we can plan and problem-solve, we cannot control a good deal of what happens to us—ergo, distress.

When it does occur, our first and only response should be to soothe our upset so that we can then think clearly about what’s happening – and get on with life.

For instance, my client fearing identity theft would have been better off doing a few minutes of deep breathing and using calming (rather than stress-inducing) self-talk.

She would have benefited from thinking about alternate explanations for her health insurance company notifying her that they hadn’t received her payment.

Perhaps it had gone to the wrong department, or she’d written the address incorrectly on the envelope.

Once she felt calmer, she would have been in a better position to make a list of things she wanted to do in relation to the “lost” payment (i.e. call the insurance company, her bank, the post office).

My client who felt neglected by her neighbors also could have started out with some deep breathing to oxygenate her brain and help her think clearly.

Then, she could have taken stock and recognized that the intensity of her reaction was way out of proportion to the situation and was from the past, not the present.

I knew this because she had grown up with parents who retaliated and gave each other and their children the cold shoulder whenever someone did something wrong.

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If she had calmed herself down, she would have had the presence of mind to brainstorm other possible reasons that her neighbors might have a party without inviting her.

She would have likely would have come up with the actual explanation: her neighbors had a series of small gatherings for different groups of people they knew—friends from their tennis club, colleagues from his and her work places, and neighbors from their street.

It just so happened that the neighborhood party was the last one to be held and, of course, my client and her husband were invited.

To recap: when you feel emotional distress, recognize it and immediately go to work de-escalating the intensity of your emotions by deep breathing, soothing self-talk, taking a walk, or intentionally distracting yourself with activity.

Remind yourself that your goal is to acknowledge your emotional state and avoid adding stress to it.

Then – and only then – when you are calmer, can you think about what to do regarding whatever caused the distress.

You can’t always outsmart emotional distress, but you can always outsmart the stress it causes you.

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