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Knowing the Difference Between Distress and Stress

Do you know the difference between distress and stress? You may think of them as one and the same, but they’re not. Distress is uncomfortable, upsetting and closely linked to anxiety. It often signals that we are hurt or are afraid to be hurt in some way. It’s an emotion which occurs in reaction to an external or internal trigger. I’ll get to explaining the difference between distress and stress in a minute.
Here’s the instance of distress that prompted my writing this blog. A client arrived at my office early one evening flushed with emotion and started talking before she even sat down, explaining in rapid fire speech that she’d mailed her health insurance payment two months before and had just been notified by letter that her payment was overdue. We talked about what might have happened to the missing check and what she could do to remedy this situation. I validated her distress, saying that anyone in her situation would be upset. This is an excellent example of distress.
My client calmed down for a nanosecond, then began expressing fear that 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 this minute, she could call her insurance company, bank and even the post office in the morning—she continued to fret and worry aloud. The previous session, we had been talking about whether she should make a trip several states away to see her mother who was in the hospital, but no matter how hard I tried to return to this topic, my client could not move away from her fear that she would become a victim of identity theft. This is an excellent example of stress, in this case, of my client generating stress from obsessing about identity theft without any evidence.
We cannot avoid distress in life and need to accept it as something that every one of us is challenged by in different ways. Although we can plan, problem-solve and make effective decisions, we can’t control much of what happens to us—ergo, distress. However, too many people heap stress upon distress by catastrophizing and fixating on what may go wrong. It would have been better for my client to make a list of the actions she wanted to take in relation to the missing health insurance check and return to talking about whether or not to make the visit to see her hospitalized mother.
You know that you’re not simply distressed, but adding stress to distress when you keep circling around a topic or landing on it, will not let yourself be distracted from thinking about it, remain upset about it, or don’t want to focus on anything else. This return to distress is called rumination and will only elevate your distress and stress, when the idea when you’re distressed is to calm yourself down. You may use food to reduce the discomfort you’re feeling or other unhelpful habits. A better way is to use soothing self-talk, anchor yourself in the present, and keep your mind focused on other things.