Anguish: symptoms, causes and emotional distress treatment

Anxiety is an emotional state that appears as a reaction to an unknown danger or imprint interpreted as dangerous. It is usually accompanied by intense psychological discomfort and small changes in the functioning of the organism.

The main symptoms of distress are increased heart rate, tremors, excessive sweating, chest tightness and shortness of breath. These sensations are accompanied by a series of thoughts and a tense mental state.

The sensations related to anguish and the generated psychological state usually appear unexpectedly. It can also become a psychopathology known as anxiety disorder when it occurs in a very intense and recurrent way.

The causes of suffering can be very varied; There is no single factor that can cause your appearance.

Anguish vs. fear

In defining and defining distress, it is important to differentiate it from fear.

Fear is an emotion that appears at certain times. Usually, when the person is exposed to some kind of danger that threatens their integrity.

Anguish, on the other hand, is an affective state that is characterized by the generation of multiple thoughts and feelings about harm or negative things that can happen to oneself.

Although anguish tends to predominate in anguish, both elements refer to different concepts.

Fear is characterized by referring to an object; that is, it is a feeling that appears in response to a given stimulus.

Anguish, on the other hand, does not refer to the psychophysiological reaction caused by a specific object, but to a mental state that causes the person to be preoccupied with a large number of non-specific elements.


Anguish is characterized by the generation of anxiety symptoms. Manifestations can vary in intensity depending on each case, but they are usually always unpleasant for the person experiencing them.

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Anguish affects all three areas of people’s functioning (physiological functioning, cognition, and behavior) and generally manifests in all of these ways.

physical functioning

Anguish usually generates important changes in the functioning of the organism. These changes are related to increased autonomic nervous system activity.

Increased autonomic nervous system activity occurs in response to fear or perceived fear and the brain’s response to that threat.

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for controlling and regulating a large number of body functions. For this reason, when your activity increases, a series of physical manifestations usually appear. The most typical are:

  1. Palpitations, heart tremors, or increased heart rate
  2. Sweating
  3. Tremors or tremors
  4. Feeling of choking or shortness of breath
  5. choking sensation
  6. Chest tightness or discomfort
  7. Nausea or abdominal discomfort
  8. Instability, dizziness or fainting.
  9. Numbness or tingling sensation)
  10. Chills or suffocation.

Emotional Distress symptoms

Cognitive symptoms

Anguish is considered a psychological condition, because it mainly causes the alteration of the person’s thinking and cognition. It appears as a consequence of the generation of a series of distressing thoughts that modify the psychological state and the physiological state of the individual.

Thoughts about distress are characterized by being precisely distressing. That is, anguish generates a series of cognitions related to fear, fear and expectation of living and suffering negative things for oneself.

The specific content of cognition related to anxiety may vary in each case, but they are always characterized by being highly distressing and related to negative elements.

Likewise, distress can cause a series of thought-related sensations to appear, such as:

  1. Derealization (feeling of unreality) or depersonalization (being separate from oneself).
  2. Fear of losing control or going crazy.
  3. afraid to die
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behavioral symptoms

Anguish is an alteration that, although not in all cases, usually affects the person’s behavioral functioning. It is common for distressing thoughts and the physical sensations they cause to affect an individual’s behavior in one way or another.

The behavioral condition of anxiety usually manifests itself in the most severe cases and is usually characterized by the onset of behavioral paralysis. The highly distressed person may become paralyzed, unable to perform any of the acts he wants or intends to perform.

In some cases, anguish can also generate very high feelings of escape, being alone or receiving contact with someone. These sensations appear in response to the need to acquire tranquility and security through a specific element and, in most cases, modify the normal behavioral pattern of the individual.

In cases of extreme distress, the person may initiate escape or escape behaviors from the situation they are in, in order to reduce their distressing sensations.


The causes of distress are very varied and depend, in each case, on relatively different factors. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to detect a single cause of the change, as this is often subject to a combination of different factors.

In general, anguish is a reaction that appears in situations in which the individual faces a difficult situation or is interpreted as complicated by the person himself.

Anguish appears when there are one or more elements, psychological or physical, that are interpreted as threatening to the person. On these occasions, the body reacts automatically, activating different defense mechanisms.

On the other hand, several studies postulate the presence of genetic factors in the development of anxiety. In this sense, anxiety disorder has a high comorbidity with other disorders.

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In particular, anxiety disorders are closely related to dysthymia and major depression; every four individuals with an anxiety disorder also suffer from mood disorders.


The most effective treatment to intervene in distress is the combination of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy.

As far as drug treatment is concerned, antianxiety medications are usually used. The benzodiazepines that appear to be most effective are benzodiazepines, and their administration allows for a rapid cessation of distressing symptoms.

In psychotherapeutic treatment, cognitive behavioral treatment is usually used. The intervention focuses on finding the psychological factors related to the onset of distress and training skills to deal with it.


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  3. Hamilton M. The Assessment of Anxiety States by Classification. Br J Med Psychol 1959; 32: 50–5.
  4. Marquez M, Segui J, Garcia L, Canet J, Ortiz M. Is panic disorder with psychosensory symptoms (depersonalization and realization) a more severe clinical subtype? J Nerv Ment Dis 2001; 189 (5): 332-5.
  5. Tesoura MK, Frank E, Nauri M, Nasser JD, Cofi E, Cassano JB. Panic-agoraphobic spectrum: preliminary data. Biol Psychiatry 1997; 42 (1 S): 133S – 133S.
  6. CD by Sherboume, Wells KB, Judd LL. Functioning and well-being of patients with panic disorder. Am J Psychiatry 1996; 153: 213–8.

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