The Root Causes Of Emotional Distress

emotional distress

As schools increase focus this year on the mental/emotional challenges that students and teachers are facing, E-Therapy is working to raise awareness of the impact that mental health issues has on each of us. Author and life coach Cathy Hartenstein shines a light on the root casues of emotional distress in part 1 of a 2-part series.

The Root Causes Of Emotional Distress

by Cathy Hartenstein

So often we find ourselves struggling in life, getting irritated easily, and feeling anxious and unsure. We feel stressed, confused, guilty, depressed, and frustrated and aren’t always even sure why. When this happens, we are probably experiencing emotional distress.

Almost everyone at one point or another has experienced emotional distress, but have you ever wondered why? What causes emotional distress and how do we learn to manage and alleviate it.

What is emotional distress?

Emotional distress is when we have a strong emotional response to our environment that feels overwhelming, physically threatening, or dangerous to our sense of well-being or survival. This can take the form of something physical like getting in an accident or something emotional like losing a loved one. Sometimes we also get triggered over seemingly inconsequential things because of past bad experiences that get stored in our subconscious.

What causes emotional distress?

Typically, emotional distress comes from a triggering event. Sometimes these are new immediate events or past events that are re-ignited from current experiences.

Most of our emotional issues stem from the following process:

  • We experience trauma
  • We draw a conclusion about this experience and form a belief
  • We assign meaning to this and develop a story that becomes our experience

What is Trauma?

Trauma comes from bad experiences that are out of our control. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.

When a brain is traumatized, the lower, more primitive areas of the brain (called subcortical areas) are HIGH, including the Fear Center (amygdala), while the higher areas of the brain, the thinking and feeling centers (called cortical areas – Prefrontal Cortex and Anterior Cingulate Cortex), are under-activated. This triggers our emotional response and dampens our logical response.

Big T and small t trauma

There are two types of traumas – big “T” Traumas and small “t” traumas. Large ‘T’ Traumas are extraordinary experiences that bring about severe distress and helplessness. They may be one-time events like acts of terrorism, natural catastrophes, bodily injuries, and sexual assault. Or, they may be prolonged stressors like war, child abuse, neglect, or violence.

Small ‘t’ traumas are circumstances where one’s bodily safety or life is not threatened, but cause symptoms of trauma nonetheless. These events, particularly in the early years, shatter our sense of security especially if they happen unexpectedly or we are powerless to stop it – examples include getting bullied, fired, break-up etc.

Fight, flight, or freeze

When we experience trauma, we have one of three responses: fight, flight, or freeze.

FIGHT: When we go into FIGHT response we run towards our stress. Emotions associated with the FIGHT response are rage, anger, irritation, and frustration

FLIGHT: When we go into FLIGHT response we run away from the stress. Emotions associated with FLIGHT are panic, fear, worry, and concern.

FREEZE: When we go into FREEZE response, we become immobile. When we find ourselves in the freeze response our trauma gets stuck in our psyche and begins to operate on a subconscious level. Emotions associated with the FREEZE response are disassociation, numbness, shock, shame, hopelessness, helplessness, and being trapped.

Locked in a “Trauma Capsule”

When a person experiences a trauma and goes into the freeze response, they do not discharge the trauma. When this happens a trauma capsule is formed and the person retains the trauma. It is locked into the subconscious mind inside a trauma capsule.

Trauma capsules contain everything connected to the life-threatening event that you experienced at the time. These are manifested through the senses:

  • sights
  • sounds
  • feelings
  • touch
  • smells

This means that at any time in the future (even 50 years from the event), if your subconscious notices anything that connects you to what’s inside your trauma capsule you will have a rush of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol causing you to experience a heightened emotional response and re-experience symptoms. This traumatic event continues to operate on a subconscious level in your daily life.

Read more in part 2 of the series: Processing Trauma To Handle Emotional Distress.

Mental Health Programs for Schools

emotional distress

E-therapy’s new eQUIP Mental Health Programs are designed to equip students, educators, and your school community with skills and knowledge to address today’s critical mental health crisis. Learn more about eQUIP.

About the Author

emotional distressCathy Hartenstein is a Life Coach, EFT/Matrix Re- imprinting, and NLP Practitioner who is dedicated to helping people create more bliss in their lives and realize their highest potential. By constantly investigating what drives us, why we do the things we do, and searching for the beauty that she sees in humanity, she empowers people to release old trauma and live their best life. She has a strong background leading groups to realize their creative vision, having been actively involved in arts and education for over 3 decades as an international theatre artist, theatre professor at many prestigious universities, and workshop facilitator. In her work she strives to help her clients reconnect to themselves and overcome their personal obstacles to realize their greatest potential. Find Cathy at Create More Bliss.