What Is Psychological Distress? - Definition & Symptoms Video

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Maslow's Safety Needs: Examples & Definition

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:05 What Is Psychological…
  • 1:29 Causes of…
  • 2:47 Symptoms
  • 3:46 Effects of…
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Psychological distress is a general term that is used to describe unpleasant feelings or emotions that impact your level of functioning. Learn about the causes of psychological distress, the symptoms, and more.

What Is Psychological Distress?

Think of a time when you felt sadness. Maybe it was after losing a loved one or losing your job. How did you respond to the situation? While some people may have no difficulty dealing with these events, they may trigger unpleasant feelings that make it impossible to cope and carry on with normal activities in others. For those of us who experience these unpleasant feelings and have difficulty coping, we are experiencing psychological distress.

Psychological distress is a general term used to describe unpleasant feelings or emotions that impact your level of functioning. In other words, it is psychological discomfort that interferes with your activities of daily living. Psychological distress can result in negative views of the environment, others, and the self. Sadness, anxiety, distraction, and symptoms of mental illness are manifestations of psychological distress.

So, no two people experience one event the exact same way. Psychological distress is a subjective experience. That is, the severity of psychological distress is dependent upon the situation and how we perceive it. We can think of psychological distress as a continuum with 'mental health' and 'mental illness' at opposing ends. As we continue to experience different things, we travel back and forth on the continuum at different times throughout our lives.

Causes of Psychological Distress

Traumatic experiences, such as the death of a loved one, are causes of psychological distress. Psychological distress can be thought of as a maladaptive response to a stressful situation. Psychological distress occurs when external events or stressors place demands upon us that we are unable to cope with. For example, we may struggle to accept that a loved one is no longer with us. As a result, we become sad and have trouble getting out of bed, we are unable to focus at work, and we lose interest in social activities.

Major life transitions, i.e. moving to a new state or graduating from college, can be a source of psychological stress if you are unable to cope with the demands that these transitions place on you or are having difficulty adjusting to the new situation. Sudden unexpected events, such as a loved one's death of a heart attack or being fired from a job, can also cause psychological distress.

Even everyday stressors, such as traffic, have the potential to cause psychological distress. Some other sources of psychological distress include:

  • Cancer and other medical illness
  • Divorce
  • Starting a new job
  • Being a victim of bullying
  • Adverse school experiences
  • Adverse work experiences
  • Infertility
  • Mental illness

Symptoms of Psychological Distress

As we previously stated, psychological distress is a subjective experience. Just as no two people experience events in the same way, no two people manifest psychological distress in exactly same way. For example, suppose that you and your mother were in a car accident and both experienced psychological distress as a result. Yet while you experience sleep disturbances, fatigue, and sadness, your mother experiences anxiety related to driving and memory problems and avoids social activities.

Other symptoms of psychological distress include:

  • Weight gain
  • Anger management problems
  • Obsessive thoughts or compulsions
  • Physical symptoms not explained by a medical condition
  • Decreased pleasure in sexual activities
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Reckless acts, i.e. excessive shopping sprees
  • Belief that others can hear your thoughts
  • Belief that your thoughts are not your own
  • Strange or unusual behaviors, i.e. wearing your clothing backwards

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account