Distress and Overload: The Drumbeat of "Too Much"

From birth, feeling distress signals us to find relief, caring, and connection.

Posted Jul 27, 2020

Of the early building blocks of our emotional experiences, distress is the first to herald us into this world. The birth cry is our first affective expression as we emerge into a bright and bewildering world. It calls for the care and comfort of another.

Intuitively most of us recognize distress by the infant cry that, left unaided, can escalate into rhythmic sobbing. We can see a baby’s face of distress in the arch of her eyebrows, and a down-turned mouth. A mother’s earliest job is to learn her baby’s distress cries and what they’re “saying”—does the baby need comfort, company, warmth, food, or pain relief of some type? 

Newborn distress
Source: istock/mmpile

Even into adulthood, when distress overtakes us, others can recognize our sadness by our downcast eyes and frowning mouth, and, perhaps, by our soft tears or guttural sobs of anguish. 

In adulthood, ideally, we are able to put language to our distress, and ask more directly for the help we need. We use many words to describe distress. Words like sad, bereft, lost, depressed, and down express the complexity that innate distress and life experience combine to bring us. 

In Western culture, there’s a certain taboo against feeling distress, particularly for men. Considered a “vulnerable” emotion compared to, let’s say anger, tears may be verboten for men starting at a very young age. Some societal or parental messages about distress you may have grown up with include:

  • Don’t cry over spilled milk!
  • If you don’t talk about it, it’s not a problem!
  • Stop crying or I’ll give you something to really cry about!
  • Big boys don’t cry!
  • Other people have it worse!

The takeaway message is that distress is to be avoided at all costs by “manly” men. The very real peril here is when you aren’t allowed to feel your own vulnerable emotions, compassion for others in distress is harder to access. Life-enhancing connection can be impaired for each person in a relationship.                                                        

Culturally, it’s more permissible for women to be distressed. Yet even women, in our narcissistic culture that lauds image above substance, are discouraged from portraying life as anything but kittens and rainbows. Instagram is full of pictures of “perfect” lives with the shadows of difficulties erased lest they obscure a picture of (faux) bliss. Messy emotions in the family of distress with names like sadness, grief, and loneliness, can then be exiled from our awareness. For both men and women, when sadness or upset does break through the wall, there can be a sense of shame we’ve somehow failed to live into an ideal of having it “together.”

But there is strength and wisdom in accessing, naming, and finding compassion for our own distress. It can be found in its biological, social, and evolutionary roots. There were and are biological and social survival benefits to distress identified by Norman Brown. They include the vital need to relieve emotional overload, to protest the loss of something important like comfort, company or love, and to evoke nurture and help from another human. The comfort that distress calls for, when met by a caring other, restores vital interpersonal connection.  

Comfort in distress
Source: istock/mapodile

So how do we identify our distress, and our distress triggers?

Distress is triggered whenever there is an above optimal, steady-state pattern of stimulus density. In more accessible terms, distress is like having a low-grade temperature. You feel flat, and off, and low energy, but you kind of keep moving forward. One foot in front of the other. What kinds of triggers might create such a pattern? A steady-state stimulus is something repetitive and unrelenting and sometimes subtle. Like a dripping faucet. It’s in contrast to fear, which is more like, “way too much coming at me, way too fast.” 

A few years ago, there was construction next door to my office. There was continuous hammering and the noxious smell of carpet adhesive and paint permeating the hallway and office. Distress was triggered in my clients and me during those instances when the continuous, intense pounding or pervasive smell was present, and, continued at a “greater than optimal level.” When it went past “just white noise,” one client understandably left our session early. At a certain point, the steady-state drumbeat of distress takes over our consciousness, sometimes leading to anger, or in this case, retreat.

Noise and overwhelming smells aren’t the only dense, steady-state stimulus triggers for distress. Much of what we do every day triggers distress; things like stop-and-go traffic, waiting in lines, managing children and homes, endless to-do lists, demanding work. 

The effects of COVID-19 are one long, steady-state stimulus, adding more layers to the distress of our regular daily lives. The drumbeat of bad news on TV, radio, and social media is wearing in the extreme. There’s uncertainty about jobs, finances, and health. There’s an unending stream of hard questions: Are my family and I safe; should school be in-class or on-line; is it masks or no masks; are we open or locked down; will work and home always be combined—or will I ever work again? Some are experiencing distress in the extreme, anguished at the loss of loved ones. The questions are relentless, and the answers keep changing, pushing our limits of tolerance.

Attenuating this long, steady-state stimulus of distress is paramount to maintaining any semblance of emotional balance. In the next post, we look at one way to identify, interrupt, and calm our emotions of overload.