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What Is Personal Distress?

By V. Sinnaeve
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By Lostnfound — On May 21, 2014

This is something I have to watch for in my husband! He wants to fix everybody's problems, when of course we know it's not his responsibility to fix them. My hubby gets on Facebook and gets all caught up in other people's drama and I have to practically drag him away from the computer and turn it off to keep him from internalizing all this stuff!

He's very empathetic, so it's just his nature to really get into other people's situations, but he absolutely puts himself into personal distress because he has such a hard time detaching.

By Grivusangel — On May 20, 2014

This has happened to me. I've become so emotionally involved in others' problems that I've become depressed, myself. Rather than just offer a sympathetic ear or shoulder to cry on, I take on their problems as if they were mine to solve.

My husband is really good at seeing this and will tell me when I'm getting too close to a situation. What I do then is distance myself from the situation for a few days, to regain some objectivity. It's tough to do sometimes, but I have to do to it for my own mental health.

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