The line between healthy stress and distress that is cause for concern can often be confusing. To be distressed means to have extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain. It is normal to experience distress, especially after traumatic or upsetting events, but prolonged distress can also become cause for concern.
Where exactly is the line between healthy stress and detrimental distress?
There are several ways to distinguish the difference (according to Campus Mind Works and Psychology Today). Ask yourself the following:
- Is my distressed state lasting for weeks, months, or even years?
- Is the source of my distress seemingly unidentifiable?
- Do I feel the sudden, random urge to cry or burst out in anger?
- Do my levels of distress not improve even when something good happens?
- Am I abusing drugs, alcohol, or even food to cope with my emotions?
- Am I generally not feeling like myself?
If you find yourself answering yes to some of those questions, it might be a good time to reach out for help. Furthermore, consider paying close attention to the emotional or behavioral indicators below. They may be signs that typical stress has morphed into a more serious problem (according to the American Psychiatric Association):
- Feeling incapable of performing routine, everyday tasks
- Waning interest in social situations or activities you once enjoyed
- Issues focusing or having “brain fog”
- Feeling apathetic
- Feeling detached from surroundings
- Being physically worn out
- Responding to daily, typically non-triggering situations with out-of-proportion emotions
However, keep in mind that experiencing some of the above symptoms does not necessarily constitute a mental illness, but these symptoms should be considered when deciding if it is time to seek help from a medical professional.
If you prefer group settings or feel like a relational group might provide the best support and accountability, consider joining a support group. Realizing that there are people out there who are sharing in your struggles or feelings can make the world feel like a less lonely place.
If you do not think your distress is to the extent of needing professional help or a support group, still keep in mind that you can discuss your feelings with family or friends; bottling up emotions can have adverse effects. Many people even find creating art (paintings, drawings, poetry, songwriting), meditating, praying, or writing in a journal to be significantly soothing and helpful in dissipating negative emotions.
Ultimately, not all distress requires professional help. But if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by negative feelings for a prolonged period of time, it is probably best to reach out to a school counselor to decide your next step to recovery. Remember, experiencing occasional distress is a part of life and completely normal; feeling sad, depressed, nervous, anxious, or any other negative feeling does not make you “weird” or “different”, especially when experiencing so many hormonal, physical, and emotional changes which is par for the course of any teenager. You should never be fearful of other people’s reactions if you choose to express your feelings or want to talk about your struggles.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255