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What Is Psychological Distress?

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  • Written By: Debra Barnhart
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2014
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Psychological distress is a broad term that describes acute mental stress resulting from life circumstances or mental illness. Levels of distress are measured based on the severity of the symptoms and their impact on the person’s daily life. Some surveys indicate that psychological distress can have an impact on disease recovery and death rates.

Many life occurrences can cause psychological distress, which is considered by experts to be a deviation from normal levels of mental health and happiness. The death of a loved one, divorce, participation in a war, and loss of a job are among the major life events that can induce high levels of distress. A person suffering from distress may or may not have a diagnosed mental disorder, although it is important to note that symptoms of diseases, such depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, can sometimes escalate to acute levels without any change in life circumstances.

Symptoms of psychological distress may include behavioral problems, increased substance abuse, sleep disruption, poor work performance, feelings of worthlessness, chronic sadness, and inability to interact with other people. Psychological distress is measured based on the severity and length of the symptoms. Assessments often rely on patient self-reporting. For instance, patients might be asked whether they have experienced feelings of worthlessness, whether these feelings were fleeting or lasted awhile, and whether the feelings were manageable or unbearable.

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The level of disruption to normal daily life is a major consideration when evaluating levels of mental distress. A person’s ability to work productively, eat a healthy diet, get a restful night’s sleep, enjoy normal activities, and socialize are all considered when diagnosing and measuring distress. Of course any suicidal thoughts, or thoughts about harming others are always considered to be clear indicators of psychological distress.

Some research shows that psychological stress can influence disease recovery, death rates, and the incidence of disease. One study found that patients suffering from distress were less likely to take medications and follow the recovery protocol recommended by their doctors. These patients experienced higher pain levels and death rates as well.

Another survey found a correlation between psychological distress and the incidence of stroke. In fact, psychological distress had a higher impact even when other risk factors like blood pressure, smoking, and family history or personal history of cardiac disease were taken into account. The same study, however, did not find any connection between depression and the occurrence of strokes.

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