Why you need to understand mental distress and how to respond to it - HR Future helps people prepare for the Future of Work and is South Africa's leading print, digital and online Human Resources magazine.

Why you need to understand mental distress and how to respond to it

Perceptions of physical or mental distress can be challenging. Although we generally try to avoid or prevent it, if something can become challenging and distressful, in all likelihood it will. Just the idea of distress can be distressful.

Our minds act in sync with our bodies in responding to our environments. When our bodies are perceived to be under attack from a virus for example, the hypothalamus – the area in the brain that acts as the body’s thermostat – shifts the normal body temperature upward, producing a fever. A fever is the body’s way of letting us know two things: that a micro-organism and toxin is present and that the natural immune response is active.
 
Similarly, our brain has a response against any perceived attack. A similar part of the brain fights against a so-called physical invasion or infection also lets the body know it’s under a perceived mental challenge, attack, or distress.
 
When we experience physical, mental or emotional distress, our body’s response is similar, the hypothalamus releases a flood of adrenaline and cortisol – known as ‘distress hormones’ into the system. This prepares the body for the perceived threat - known as the ‘fight-or-flight response’. Our strength and stamina temporarily increase as our reaction time is shortened and our senses become heightened. This reaction can temporarily enhance the body’s focus and coping capabilities.
 
Neither our minds nor our bodies can maintain proper functionality for extended periods of distress. When we experience the resultant painful emotions, rather than maintain the status quo, it is wise to alter the situation, either by changing our actions or by changing our perceptions of the situation.

What are some of the reasons we experience mental distress?

We often experience prolonged mental and ultimately physical distress because our highest priorities and values are not clearly defined and lived by and we unknowingly focus our attention on low priority, immediate or instant gratifiers instead of more meaningful and productive long-term objectives.
 
Another initiator of mental distress is not identifying and expressing gratitude for the so-called challenging events, actions and people who have ultimately helped us in our lives. When we are grateful for what we have, we receive more to be grateful for.
 
Frequently, our distress is self-perpetuated. When we allow our minds to be filled with doubts and speculation, we can work ourselves into a state of inaction – the ‘flight’ aspect of fight-or-flight’ and the feedback loop if left unchecked, increases.

What can we do to prevent mental distress?

We are wise to stop and evaluate our highest priorities and honestly assess if we are tending to our goals or not. It would be wise to evaluate what is truly working and what isn’t, and then to refine our actions and skills to maximize our meaning and productivity. When we are doing high priority, meaningful actions we transform illness creating distress into wellness creating eustress (beneficial stress).
 
It is also wise to make a daily practice of entering into a state of mindfulness where we feel present and centered in our daily activities.
 
By constantly reminding ourselves of our highest priorities or values as well as our mission and vision through self-affirmation and priority checklists, our achievements can be even more sustainable. We can heighten the impact of our body’s feedback mechanisms and override and master the ‘fight’ aspect as our body’s distress response.
 
Much like the relief our bodies feel when a high fever breaks, so too will our minds be filled with a similar sense of relief when we overcome or transform the mental distress we once imagined attacked us.
 
By listening to the subtle responses of our perceived distress, we can attend to the personal signals they offer us to make wise and meaningful changes.

Dr. John Demartini is an educator, business consultant, author and founder of The Demartini Institute.

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