Distress is a response when we feel we’re under threat. It’s characterised by emotional pain and a breakdown of previously adequate coping mechanisms.

It can assist to protect our wellbeing and is something yourself or most people in your team will experience at some point.

It’s a problem when it is prolonged and becomes too overwhelming

Signs of distress

The warning signs of distress are different for everyone, but here are some common ones:


This includes things like:

  • anger
  • anxiety
  • defensiveness
  • feelings of being overwhelmed
  • irritability
  • mood swings
  • negative attitudes


This includes things like:

  • avoidance and withdrawal
  • decreased productivity
  • increased use of unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, drugs or junk food
  • less organised
  • not showing up for work


This includes things like:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • forgetfulness
  • impaired decision making
  • more frequent mistakes
  • reduced motivation


This includes things like:

  • changes in appearance
  • decreased personal care
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • poor sleep patterns
  • tension
  • weight change

Ways to help

When you or one of your team feels distress, try to ground yourself in the moment.

This can be hard. Try to focus on things you can control, rather than worrying about things out of your control.

Here are 2 exercises you can use to help:

Five senses

Take a moment to settle yourself into stillness.

Then take 3 deep and even breaths.

Now shift your attention to what’s happening around you.

Think of:

  • 5 things you can see?
  • 4 things you can hear?
  • 3 things you can feel?
  • 2 things you can smell?
  • 1 thing you can taste?

Isometric breathing

Breathe deeply and as you do, create some extra muscle tension in one group of muscles.

Take a deep breath and hold, maintaining the tension and the breath for a count of 6.

Exhale completely for a count of 6 and release a third of the tension in your muscles.

Repeat this process twice, releasing a third of the tension each time.

Move on to another muscle group and repeat.