Just as with physical health, mental health exists on a continuum. We can experience mild symptoms of something, or something can affect us in an extreme way. There is not one population of sufferers, and another population of so-called normal people. We all experience distress at one time or another.
A major biological reason why we experience distress, is that we have evolved as self-correcting organisms, using pain and pleasure as our guides. We try to keep ourselves within a moderate area called contentment. If we feel a lack, then we seek to supply that lack. (For example, if we feel starved of oxygen, our body sends us a corrective ‘distress’ message to breathe; if we feel short of food, our body sends us a ‘discomfort’ message to eat.) Equally, if we feel an excess of something, then we seek to distance ourselves. (For instance, if we have run a long way, our body sends us a ‘distress’ message to rest.)
Pain and pleasure, or discomfort and comfort, are wired into us via inner hormonal and reward systems. (See, for instance, this link about the role of dopamine.) Even our attempts at rational thinking are affected by inner reward systems. In general, we get a kick out of ‘being right’, ‘discovery’, or ‘enlightenment’, and find it frustrating or annoying to ‘be in the wrong’ or ‘in the dark’.
The ability to be distressed is thus programmed into us, and can help us to restore balance when things go wrong. If we lose our wallet, or a friend, then our insides send us warning signals that something important is missing. We try harder to find the lost thing, or to restore the lost relationship.
DISTRESS TYPE #1 – LOSS
A child is distressed because its mother has disappeared for a moment. A bereaved person is distressed because a loved one has died. We suffer losses, large and small, all the time. Loss is central to many, many experiences of distress. And, because we are not in control of our environments, loss is often outside our control. Loss is the other side of the coin of attachment. We become attached to people, things, ways of life, ways of thinking. When we lose them, we lose our ‘home territory’, and we can become anxious or depressed.
DISTRESS TYPE #2 – ANTICIPATION (ANXIETY)
A complication of loss is that we have the power to prevent it. A child, just before its mother disappears, can grab onto the mother, or create a behaviour to get the mother’s attention. This is a survival tactic. It involves not waiting for the loss, but acting in anticipation of it. It explains why we can become anxious, or ‘act out’, well before any loss has actually occurred. Many anxiously attached individuals can become acutely distressed at the mere thought of loss. Anxiety, in a sense, is loss anticipated.
DISTRESS TYPE #3 – DESPAIR (DEPRESSION)
A further complication is that we can get so tired anticipating or experiencing loss, that our mind and body start to shut down, not even reacting much. Our ability to focus is diminished. It is as though we have lost before we have started the day. This is where anticipation of loss (anxiety) can turn into hopelessness (depression). The ability of our insides to keep ourselves afloat disappears. We become reliant on the help of friends, and medications, to stop us from disappearing into a black abyss. Friends become tired, because they have their own problems, and feel dragged down by our depressive behaviour. We may become passive, alone and distant.
LINKING THE 3 TYPES
To summarise, the ability to experience pain and pleasure is hardwired into us. In moderate form, this ability is useful. It feeds us when we are hungry, and helps us to retain social contact with helpful people.
- Life is unpredictable, and brings loss. When we suffer a loss, we experience a natural suffering, and then a rebalancing, as we adjust to our new reality. This is the first type of distress.
- However, we don’t always wait for loss to happen. We have the ability to anticipate possible losses. In reaction, we can start to grab onto people and things (for instance, to form codependent attachments to people, or to form addictions to things). We can start to act out losses that have not even happened yet. In short, we can become anxious (the second type of distress).
- Eventually, tired of loss or anticipation of loss, we can become tired and hopeless. We lose energy, and can lose contact with those around us. This is depression (the third type of distress).
Can all this be helped? Yes. There are ways to handle loss differently, and to change our distress response. Many of these ways can be explored in counselling and psychotherapy. We are all seeking happiness, and the path to happiness involves being aware of, analysing, and overcoming, unhelpful distress responses, and slowly replacing them, if we can, with more helpful and functional patterns of thought and behaviour.