In this article, we’ll take a look at the effects of emotional turmoil on the mind and body. We’ll use the term emotional distress to refer to single instances or events that create a broader experience of emotional turmoil. Later in the article, we’ll explore some techniques and healthy coping mechanisms you can use to calm yourself whenever you find yourself in a state of turmoil.
Bear in mind that this article is not a substitute for medical advice. Emotional turmoil can have such a deep impact on a person that one may experience a wide range of mental health issues. These health issues may include; depression, anxiety, mood swings, and the exacerbation of existing, underlying mental health issues such as borderline personality or bipolar disorder.
As such, it is vital to speak to a licensed therapist or counselor if you find yourself in such great emotional turmoil that the self-help tips just don’t suffice.
Self-help goes a long way in helping us manage our lives and cope with stressors, but there are times when professional help may be necessary. Still, that doesn’t mean you should abandon self-help altogether – many people recover effectively from mental and emotional health issues through a combination of both professional and self-help.
What is emotional turmoil?
Collins dictionary defines turmoil as ‘a state of confusion, disorder, uncertainty, or great anxiety.’
Emotional turmoil is a frightening experience, one that can leave you mentally and physically exhausted. It can happen after a single experience or event, but it can also refer to a series of ongoing events.
For example, suppose a mugger attacked you, and your possessions were stolen. In that case, you might experience emotional turmoil during the event and for a period after, perhaps days or weeks, or possibly months. However, you might also experience emotional turmoil if you are subject to maltreatment on several occasions, such as in cases of childhood neglect or abuse at the hands of a caregiver.
The events that cause emotional turmoil are not just upsetting and distressing – they can leave a lasting damaging impact on a person’s psyche. That impact is a lot for anyone to deal with, but it is particularly damaging to children, whose brains and personalities are still in their early formative years.
What causes emotional turmoil?
Often, emotional turmoil and emotional distress follow traumatic experiences. Psychological trauma, as defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), is ‘an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that are experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.’
Trauma was once strongly associated with war veterans and survivors of natural disasters, but the fact is that anybody can experience trauma. SAMHSA explains that ‘trauma has no boundaries with regard to age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, geography or sexual orientation.’
There are many circumstances beyond war and natural disasters that cause trauma. Sexual abuse is a major cause, along with emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, childhood neglect, the sudden loss of a loved one, witnessing domestic violence, and growing up in poverty.
All of these experiences can cause deep emotional distress and leave a person feeling lost, confused, and overwhelmed. They can lead to many difficulties in daily life, which we’ll further explore later in the article.
It’s crucial to understand that emotional turmoil is not reserved for trauma survivors. There is a stigma surrounding mental health issues, and though, fortunately, that stigma is lifting, it still exists.
Many people are reluctant to seek help and support for their mental health issues and concerns because they have been conditioned to believe that ‘other people have it worse’ or that what they’re going through ‘isn’t really that bad.’
Know that anything that overwhelms your ability to cope and makes you feel low, hopeless, and lost, is something worth looking into and gathering as much help and support as possible. You’re perfectly entitled to ask for help.
Signs you’re experiencing emotional turmoil
If your emotions have run amok, you’re experiencing mood swings, depression, and anxiety, and you just can’t seem to get things together, you might be going through some emotional turmoil. The good news is that you can feel better with some self-help and some outside support if necessary.
The first step in recovering from emotional turmoil is to develop the ability to recognize it. One of the characteristics of many cases of fatigue, exhaustion, and burnout is that the person suffering does not realize the weight of their stress and distress until it’s too late, and they eventually collapse (figuratively or literally) under it.
Below, we have outlined some of the most common signs of emotional turmoil and distress. Learn and remember these signs and try to remember to check in with yourself regularly if any of these apply to your experience.
- Changes in appetite – eating too little or too much.
- Difficulty finding energy and motivation to do things you usually do
- Experiencing headaches, muscle pain, tension, stomach issues, or other physical aches and pain with no clear explanation (medically unexplained symptoms)
- Withdrawing from friends and family, isolation from others, loss of interest in hobbies
- Substance use – drinking or smoking more than usual, binge drinking, using illicit substances, misusing prescription medication (outside of the doctor’s recommendation)
- Experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm
- Feeling hopeless, helpless, despair
- Excessive worry and rumination
- Feelings of depression, anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating, focusing, paying attention at work, school, or in conversations
- Aggressive outbursts
- Emotional numbness (shutdown)
- Crying spells
- Memory problems
- Mood swings
How to get through emotional turmoil
Whether your emotional turmoil stems from an anxiety disorder, a mood disorder such as depression, bipolar, or a personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder, or whether it’s come from excess stress at work or in your personal life. You’ll be glad to know there are some tips and techniques you can apply whenever you need to help yourself rest, relax, and recharge.
Focus on your physical health
The first step is to nourish your mind and body. All of us experience stress and distress to varying degrees, and sometimes even when things are going well, life throws a curveball at us and overwhelms our ability to cope.
One of the biggest differences between those who deal with stress effectively and those who succumb to its pressure is the person’s level of emotional resilience, which, among other factors, is determined by your state of health.
To boost your emotional resilience and keep yourself level and grounded when stress inevitably arises, keep your physical health in check through a healthy, nutritious diet, regular exercise, and high-quality sleep.
Again, sometimes life gets the better of us even when we take care of ourselves, but the healthier you keep your body, the greater your chance of quickly overcoming whatever turmoil or distress is coming up in your life. Maintenance of your physical health is an effective preventative measure against the onset and inner chaos of emotional turmoil.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of high-quality sleep every night. High-quality sleep means getting deep rest for that window of time.
It does not mean exhausting yourself out and pushing your body to its limits with substances such as alcohol or benzodiazepines until you eventually pass out. It means adhering to a reasonable bedtime and taking an hour or two before sleep to relax and unwind your mind and body.
Avoid screens, stimulants such as food and drugs (including alcohol), or too much physical exertion before bed. Consider reading, drinking herbal tea, or doing some lighting stretching before bed to maximize the benefits of sleep and enjoy greater emotional well-being as a result.
When you’re going through stress and turmoil, you might notice a change in your eating habits. You might avoid food altogether, or you might binge eat. Both changes in your appetite are unhealthy and are one of the major signs that you’re experiencing too much stress.
Pay attention to your diet when you are experiencing stress. Pay attention to your diet even when you’re not. Nutrient-rich foods can help you reduce your stress levels and even improve your mood and brain function. In the throes of emotional turmoil, mindful eating can be a lifesaver. A healthy diet, just like sleep, also serves as a preventative measure against the onset of emotional turmoil.
Healthy fats and oils, vitamins, minerals, proteins, antioxidants, and complex carbohydrates all keep your brain and body running smoothly and increase your ability to handle and overcome stress. Recent research on serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain and widely known as one of the brain’s feel-good chemicals, has found a significant amount (around 95 percent) of the body’s serotonin supply is produced in the gut microbiome.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for governing and regulating mood and emotions. A healthy diet, and therefore a healthy gut microbiome, keeps the quality of serotonin in the body high, which has a direct impact on mood and our ability to tolerate distress.
Emotional turmoil is characterized by a heightened stress response, including muscle tension, anxiety, erratic mood, sleep issues, changes in appetite, and low self-esteem. One key approach to tackling all of these issues simultaneously is to engage in regular exercise.
Of course, emotional turmoil and distress often stem from upsetting, confusing, or frightening life events. Hence, exercise is not a cure-all approach. Still, it does have a profound positive impact on our physical and mental health and significantly boosts our emotional resilience and distress tolerance.
Scientists have found that even light aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling, and dancing, even for 20 to 30 minutes a day, can relieve stress, reduce the symptoms and severity of anxiety and depression, and even boost mental clarity and cognitive abilities.
If you want to add extra benefits to your exercise routine, get out in nature. Take a walk or a run through a park, the countryside, or any wooded or grassy area to intake more oxygen, expand your blood vessels, and refresh your mind, body, and soul.
Practice mindfulness meditation
As per the nature of stress, it often makes us forget to take care of ourselves. If self-care were easy to do in times of stress, then whatever’s happening in our lives at that moment wouldn’t feel very stressful at all.
However, as hard as it may be to stay mindful during a period of emotional turmoil, it’s crucial for your well-being. It also becomes much easier with practice.
Take up a mindfulness meditation practice, whether you’re under stress or not, and apply it to your daily life. The more you practice, the easier it will be to use this stress-relieving, life-affirming tool, when stress inevitably arises.
Below, we’ll offer a simple yet effective breathing exercise you can try today to calm your stress and begin your journey into mindfulness.
- Find a comfortable position; you can sit or lie down, whichever you prefer. You’ll want to keep your spine aligned and relaxed, so place a cushion behind your back on the chair if you’re sitting, or make sure the surface you’re lying on is comfortable.
- Begin by noticing your breath. Place a hand on your abdomen and the other hand on your chest. Notice the rise and fall of your abdomen.
- Watch your breath without effort for a few moments. Next, take a deep breath in through your nose so that your abdomen rises, but your chest doesn’t move.
- Allow the breath to fall out of your body. You don’t need to push it; just let it fall out naturally.
- Focus on your senses. Identify something you can hear, such as a car passing outside your window, the songs of birds, or the ticking of the clock. Identify something you can feel, such as the ground beneath your feet or the mat beneath your back. Continue to recognize your sense.
- Bring your attention back to your breath, and continue to do so until your body naturally comes to a place of rest and relaxation.
Our final piece of advice is to help you get through emotional turmoil. Humans are social creatures, so we’re meant to work together to help each other. If whatever is happening in your life is making you feel overwhelmed, up and down, confused, or frightened, don’t hesitate to speak to a trusted friend or family member.
Many of us are reluctant to speak to others about our issues because we don’t want to sound like we’re complaining or that we’re ungrateful, but a problem shared is a problem halved. If you do reach out to someone you know, make sure you can trust them to keep what you tell them confidential if that’s what you need.
Other than friends and family, you may find great support from a therapist or counselor. In therapy, an attuned and compassionate therapist can offer you some much-needed space to vent and will safely support you in a deep exploration of the root causes of your emotional turmoil. They can also offer effective coping tips and tools for self-management to help you keep your mental and tonal health in check outside of the session.