Uncertainty and Distress : 'The Big Gloom’ Affecting Young People
September 23, 2023
Having trouble finding motivation to get out of bed in the morning?
Feel like you’re just going through the motions?
Or just feel like everything has been a bit off?
Fortunately, you’re not alone in this.
Unfortunately, feelings of severe distress are rising, particularly among young adults aged 18 to 24. A recent survey found that one in five people in this age bracket reported feeling severe distress, which amounts to about 1 million people across the UK. Women, non-binary people, and people working in routine and manual occupations were particularly susceptible to high levels of distress.
What constitutes severe distress?
At normal levels, stress is a useful state of being that allows us to quickly respond to danger, or to motivate us for success. Stress becomes distress when the amount of experienced stress exceeds normal functioning levels. In distress, your body may be struggling to process all the stressors and it reacts in maladaptive ways. This leads to anxiety and emotional or physical pain. Severe distress, according to Distress Questionnaire-5, is a state of:
- Constant overwhelming worry,
- Persistent feelings of hopelessness,
- Easy upset from social settings,
- Inability to stay focused on tasks,
- Anxiety or fear always interferes with your ability to do things.
Causes of severe distress
Severe distress can be brought on by individual stressful events, either physical or emotional, mental exertion, or constant underlying stress. It can also be exacerbated by wider societal factors such as the pandemic, cost-of-living crisis, the climate crisis, and underfunded mental health care.
The COVID-19 pandemic and climate crises were both found to independently evoke negative emotions and increase distress in young people. Pandemic stress was more likely to evoke feelings of anxiety, isolation and disconnection, whereas climate change evoked feelings of guilt and anger. While distress was on a fast rise during the pandemic, climate change proved to result in significantly greater distress overall in 2022. The trend is expected to continue and potentially grow as we are seeing continuous natural disasters throughout 2023.
Alongside this, the full impact of the current cost-of-living crisis is yet to be seen as psychology and sociology research is still underway. However, looking at previous trends of economic uncertainty and the impact of financial struggles would indicate that both factors tend to lead to increased instances of anxiety, stress, and the development of mental health disorders.
Uncertainty distress is a model of behavioural and emotional reactions to times of uncertainty. This model provides an overview of how people react to real-world situations that cause either an actual threat, life disruption, or actual uncertainty. When such an event occurs, people perceive the level of threat or uncertainty based on their own tolerance of uncertainty. This in turn becomes uncertainty distress which can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive concerns. With so many uncertain events happening in succession, it is no wonder that distress experienced by young people is on the rise.
Socioeconomic environments and coping mechanisms can act as protective factors in tolerance of uncertainty, but as the cost of living crisis continues and as healthcare workers continue to fight for better working conditions, these protective barriers are being eroded. Therefore, it is important to foster your own protective factors.
Ways to improve uncertainty tolerance and reduce distress
Mindfulness as part of everyday routine
Mindfulness is a skill like any other, and while at first, it may be difficult to achieve the state of being mindful, with some practice it can become second nature to achieve tranquillity. Even mundane tasks like washing the dishes can become an opportunity to practice mindfulness.
Similar to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it can be beneficial to accept the situation and negative feelings as part of your life. Acknowledging that this week’s headlines are bleak and scary can lead to personal growth by identifying actions that can reduce your distress or anxiety.
Working on art, photography, crocheting, writing, etc. can all be great de-stressing activities. If one activity is not working for you, you can always try another – there is no pressure to create masterpieces. Sometimes, doing “bad” in creative projects can lead to outcomes that are a lot more fun. You are the only person deciding which rules to follow in creativity.
Treat yourself to a relaxing evening of burning scented candles and reading, having a bath, listening to music, or just appreciating the view outside your window. Relaxing activities can provide your mind with much-needed rest, but it is important to tailor them to your preferences and do what makes you feel relaxed.
It can be useful to break up the big feelings of distress into smaller problems. Some can be as small as doing the dishes. For others, an easy “win” might be getting out of bed for the day, which is just as important of a personal journey as any other. Doing easy mundane “wins” can provide feelings of control and satisfaction.
There is no big secret to overcoming distress, it is an individual journey that we take to find calmness when the world around us seems to be in chaos. Along this journey, we may receive help from our friends, family, or outside support. Our therapists are highly skilled and experienced professionals who are able to provide you with the needed support in these times of uncertainty.