Personal distress is the name for the low moods or discomfort that results when empathetic people become too deeply involved in others’ pain. It is often the result of negative life experiences, including divorce, sexual dysfunction, job dissatisfaction and more. Personal distress can often result in eating disorders, substance abuse and suicide attempts. After ruling out medical and psychological causes, it is important that individuals who have become too involved in negative situations seek positive solutions, whether through counseling, changing their behavior patterns or releasing negative emotions. through music and art.
When friends and family members are going through negative life experiences, individuals who show sympathy and empathic concern are often greatly appreciated. By throwing their entire spirit into sad situations to try to help, however, individuals who show empathy often become overwhelmed. Mirror neurons become active in their brains, simulating their feelings to match those of the person who is undergoing the distress firsthand.
Although sympathizing shows how much one cares, overreacting or continuously analyzing a negative situation without providing any helpful solutions can defeat the purpose, causing the distress of the situation to turn inward and negatively affect the sympathizer. This usually is the result of emotional contagion, which is when one person's emotions influence those of another person. The sympathizer will focus on himself or herself, often through an egotistical reaction of self-pity. This, in turn, decreases the probability of prosocial behavior and does not help the situation of the person who originally was in distress.
A person’s capacity to experience personal distress compared with empathic concern and fantasy can be measured. This can be done using the sub-scale of Davis’ Interpersonal Reactivity Index that measures the psychological response processes involved when exposed to other people's negative life situations. Some people are simply weaker than others at controlling their emotions, and it is more likely for these individuals to succumb to others’ negative experiences and face personal distress even when trying to help.
Personal willpower is essential in overcoming personal distress. It is helpful for someone to consider how continuously feeling upset about a friend or family member’s situation is not going to help. According to common coding theory, a person's perceptual and motor representations are closely related. If a friend or family member is faced with someone else’s tears in relation to his or her personal situation, it might only make him or her feel worse. Hence, it is important for individuals who overreact with sympathy and empathic concern to take into consideration how they can control their emotions rather than becoming overwhelmed and possibly worsening their own situation as well as the other person's situation in the process.