Qualities of Emotional Distress

changeWhen we are dealing with very distressing situations, we may feel that emotional pain is constant, endless, and unbearable.  We feel stuck in it.  We lose sight of the fact that we experience it in “waves” and there are periods of relief from the worst of it.  A “bad day” is more often a series of painful episodes than a day of unrelenting emotional agony.

These three qualities of emotional distress are helpful to keep in mind:

(1) Frequency (or how often the episodes of emotional distress occur). After an upsetting event occurs, people often find themselves thinking about it “all the time.” Sometimes they have the feeling that they can’t “just shake it.”  Other times, these thoughts are triggered by reminders of what happened or the person who is not there anymore, conversations with friends and/or acquaintances, and media (e.g., news stories, movies, articles) — to name a few.

When these episodes are frequent, it is often helpful to identify  2-3  emotional triggers that are the most likely to occur and to develop a plan for handling them. Some examples of this are:

People who are often upset by questions and comments from others find it helpful to develop and rehearse spoken or unspoken phrases or brief statements (“one liners”) for these situations.

It is helpful to think about trigger situations as a series of manageable time intervals, each with a plan of action.  For instance, a social gathering can become a series of 10-15 minute time intervals — each associated with talking with a specific individual or about a particular topic that is emotionally “safe.”

As time passes and recovery progresses,  we may still think about what happened but far less often.

(2) Duration (or how long the episodes of emotional distress last). Emotional distress often occurs in “waves” or “jags” – periods of intensity followed by relative calm. These episodes tend to be longer-lasting near the beginning of emotional recovery. As recovery progresses, the “waves” become shorter-lasting.

It is helpful to determine how long these periods actually last.  People are often surprised (and relieved) to learn that they usually do not last more than 20 minutes (and most people report it taking less time than that!).  A emotionally difficult day is likelier to consist of a number of painful (but time-limited) episodes than a continuous and unbroken single episode.

Recognition of  the “20 minute pattern” facilitates:

Identification of comfortable and appropriate locations to think about or go to until the episodes pass

Emotional acceptance of the fact that upsetting times will occur and they will pass.

As emotional recovery progresses, the duration of the periods of distress decrease.

(3) Intensity (or how severe the episodes of emotional distress are when they happen). Sometimes emotional pain is so severe that it seems unbearable; it may feel this way for some time.

Grief is a good example of this.  At first, it might be very difficult to think about the person who is not around anymore without becoming very upset. Later, it may be possible to think or talk about that person without much (if any) shift in composure or mood.

When emotional distress is intense, it makes it difficult to think about its other qualities.  Yet, considering them might make it more tolerable.  For instance, recognizing that intensity will diminish in 20 minutes (or less) makes it easier to tolerate.

As recovery takes place, emotional intensity diminishes.  When frequency also decreases, intensity becomes easier to tolerate.



Improvement occurs as these qualities change – sometimes at the same time and, at other times, one at a time.


Improvement occurs as these qualities change – sometimes at the same time and, at other times, one at a time. By noticing these qualities, we can

recognize when things are improving and identify what might have helped them improve.  Sometimes feeling better results from things we are not doing or doing differently than before.


The more we know about how we experience difficulties, the better we can become at managing them.


The more we know about how we experience difficulties, the better we can become at managing them. In that way, it can be beneficial to recognize patterns in how we have dealt with past experiences. Things that helped us before may help us again.

Many people seem to easily recognize one or two of the qualities. It can be challenging to consider  all three. During the most difficult of times, it is common to think that nothing will change. When you think about the three qualities, this thought can be less persuasive.

When difficulties are overwhelming, it is often difficult to tell if things are improving. Monitoring these qualities and making comparisons over time helps provide some “evidence” about how recovery is actually progressing.  It is harder to feel as bad while knowing that things are getting better.

Although thinking about all three of the qualities may not resolve the issues themselves, it may encourage optimism and hope which, in turn, may facilitate resolution.

Many people seek help from psychotherapists for help with specific concerns, incidents, or patterns of behavior. Treatment often focuses upon those issues and can be very helpful in many ways. Tracking frequency, duration, and intensity is a valuable way of recognizing progress and identifying experiences, interventions, or insights that have been particularly effective.