Emotional Distress is Temporary

Recently I got an email from Jennifer Maurer from the Mother Bear Community Action Network. I met her at the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care Conference in North Carolina last September.  She says, “I would love for you to write a page on ‘How Emotional Distress is Temporary.’ ”

Emotional distress is temporary and it comes when our personal resources are overwhelmed. We  begin to get a bit separated from reality.  Here is the biochemical mechanism for how this emotional distress is temporary and reversible. It may be super happy or super sad moods, it may be seeing or hearing things that aren’t there, or it may come out  in anger or needless interpersonal struggles. Our mental suffering can come when we are unable to get our emotional needs met and we do have enough enough support to figure out new ways to go about our lives to meet those needs. Ethan Watters, in the book, Crazy Like Us, says that emotional distress has a very changed appearance in different cultures and different periods of time.

So an important question is, “How do we know emotional distress is temporary or permanent?” Here is a video where Corinna West how explains every single participant of Race Across America, a bike race, suffers tremendously, but a huge difference is how they know it won’t be permanent. Corinna found that  her mental health symptoms were coming from her past trauma experiences and it was a very pivotal moment in her recovery from just about every psychiatric label in the DSM.

Emotional distress is temporary if we don’t make it permanent:


This performance is from a KC Consciousness poetry event which is hosted by Sara “Miss Conception” Glass. Sara is a featured poet from Poetry for Personal Power. This is a program which helps young people learn how they can overcome adversity by contacting other people who have been through tough times, and by finding their own sources of strength. For each person it is different. At our events, we’ve had over 200 young adults talk about what helps them get through. Here is one of the best videos from Andrew Holland, who uses Dungeons and Dragons as a way to find strength during the challenges in his life.

How young people can make sure their emotional distress is temporary so they can overcome adversity:


Famous activists who have found that emotional distress is temporary

Personal Power is an idea originally coined by Pat Deegan, who called it “personal medicine.”  “Personal medicine” is what inspires us to want to get well, and what we do that makes us strong. ‘Personal Medicine” is what we do as opposed to “pill medicine” which is what we take. Pat was a person diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 17 and then went on to become an influential psychology researcher and entrepreneur by moving past the expectations of her medical providers and instead hearing the hope from her family members.

Pat Deegan said, “At one point I didn’t ever want to get out of bed. But making homemade bread was one of my favorite things, and my mom would come and say, ‘Can you just at least knead this batch of bread?’ And it was a phenomenal effort to do that. But I did, because she kept asking me, kept supporting me with her love and confidence in my ability to be someone, day after day, which I didn’t beleive.”

Dan Fisher showing how emotional distress is temporary. Shown with Colleen Blumfield, Daniel Safer, Julie Zito, and Peggy Swarbick at the 2011 SAMHSA Pharmacology Dialogue

Dan Fisher showing how emotional distress is temporary. Shown left to right: Laura VanTosh, Dan Fisher, Colleen Blumfield, Daniel Safer, Julie Zito, and Peggy Swarbick at the 2011 SAMHSA Pharmacology Dialogue

The National Empowerment Center, one of the best resources on recovery from people who have done it, has a pivotal article among their many important articles about, “Everyone who recovered had one person who beleived in them.” For Dan Fisher, now one of the leaders of the recovery movement, it was a therapist during one of his first hospitalizations who beleived in him. He told the therapist, “I’m going to get out of this hospital and become a psychiatrist.” Six years later, the therapist was at Dr. Fisher’s medical school graduation. He proved that emotional distress is temporary and has not needed psych meds for over 20 years now.

Emotional distress is temporary – it’s not any more complicated than being overwhelmed in what’s happening in one’s life. It’s only permanent if people internalize their own labels and lose hope. And hope can always be regained when enough people will stay around, will carry a loved one’s hope in a jar, and then give the precious cargo back when their son or daughter is ready to dream again.

Five key points to know how emotional distress is temporary:

  1. Recovery is possible no matter the diagnosis.
  2. Diagnoses are somewhat subjective categories that attempt to describe common experiences. It turns out that a person who goes to a doctor and gets a label might  only have a 30 – 50% chance of getting the same label from the next doctor. These labels are much more useful as billing codes for insurance companies than any kind of prediction of a person’s future. The best way to predict a future is to shape it yourself like this poem about Taking Back the Dreams.
  3. Diagnoses can imply an experience is concrete or permanent but really, a separation from reality can be a very useful, positive, spiritual experience than furthers one’s personal growth.
  4. Mental health labels can provide some sense of relief by putting a name to confusing and painful/stressful experiences, but no matter how recovery oriented a doctor or treatment team is, our society is still filled with messages that these labels are permanent and not simply describing a temporary time of being overwhelmed in a person’s life.
  5. It is not necessary to identify with or accept a diagnoses to experience recovery, and in fact, some studies have shown that people who think too much about their illness have worse outcomes. This is why Wellness Wordworks often uses other community connections such as bicycling, poetry, martial arts, or spirituality to talk about building a life.  Below is an example from a person with a developmental disability, where people are indeed shown to have physical or chemical differences, unlike most mental health labels.

Temple Grandin, a famous autism researcher, pointed out the problem with labeling and identiy.  She said, “The fact that  more children have autism nowadays is partly , and only partly, because we are now identifying children who might have gone their whole life without knowing how they were different. In a way, this is a good thing, because people can get help who wouldn’t normally get help. But it is also a bad thing, because kids with autism tend to get fixated on something in their childhood. It’s better if they get fixated on something like dogs, stem cells, trains, dinosaurs, or computers; something that would lead to a job. But now many of these kids are getting fixated on autism.”

Complete mental health recovery is possible!

It turns out that often people have used the word recovery so much that it has little meaning, so it’s become good to specify “complete recovery” if that’s what you mean. Of course, if emotional distress is temporary, it’s quite possible to move beyond labels and medications. We”ll end this post with a comment from Jennifer Maurer from the Mother Bear Community Action Network that describes how her organization is using the terminology.

“Recovery is a universal experience. It is a natural resolution of emotional distress and disempowerment that may have been caused by many things, among them the many traumas and losses that are part of the human experience. We all have dark nights of the soul, grieve losses, and experience overwhelm. We do not view emotional distress as a disease, but we recognize that we can make ourselves sick by not living a healthy, balanced emotionally expressive and connected life, so recovery can involve healing from physical illnesses too.

Recovery means thriving. Not subsisting in a medicated fog or a minimally functioning state. So recovery is about rich connected relationships, personal empowerment and self-direction, a sense of meaning and purpose, vitality, dreams. It is about living a life worth living.

Recovery is more about transformation than restoration. If distress indicates overwhelm, then moving through the recovery process is about uncovering strengths, cultivating patience for the natural healing process, finding new ways of handling challenges, re-connecting or connecting more fully with community, etc. Someone who has recovered from an emotional/mental health challenge can be more resilient, courageous, and healthy than someone who hasn’t had to make this journey.

Recovery is unique. For some, that may mean “complete recovery”. Leave your diagnosis/labels behind. For others, it may be helpful to think of recovery as an ongoing process of growth and evolution and self love. Rather than tell someone what recovery means, we think it is more valuable to ask, what does it mean for you? What is your truth? Honor it.

 What questions do you still have about how emotional distress is temporary?

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