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On Distress


In my own life and thoughts, I am sometimes prone to catastrophizing or doom spiraling. Something difficult, painful, or simply uncomfortably unexpected occurs in an area of my life that I care about deeply, and suddenly my mind is racing through the next twenty awful things that are going to result from this until I arrive at the worst possible outcome. I become distressed, I ruminate, I catastrophize and suddenly the absolute worst thing imaginable has gone from being considered a highly improbable outlier to being treated as an inevitability that looms over everything.

This is a very uncomfortable experience. It results in an increased feeling of agitation and distress. And yet, when I sense myself initiating the spiral—i.e., when I am aware enough to observe that I am making a choice to initiate this process of catastrophizing—I learn that part of me really wants to throw me whole-heartedly into this distressing experience. I sense that I am beginning to spiral, I move to stop myself from doing so—and then something very strong within me says, “No! We are going into this and nothing can stop us and we are going to obsessively ruminate about everything awful and catastrophize until we feel absolutely annihilated and overwhelmed by it all!”

That’s kind of weird, right? Well, not really, because so many of us do that with behaviours that we experience as undesirable or painful and which we tell ourselves we want to avoid at all costs. It’s actually pretty normal to compulsively, obsessively, and sometimes rather forcefully do things that, on average, we say we really don’t enjoy doing at all. So instead of calling this weird, let’s call that a very curious thing. This part of me that refuses to allow this other part of me to stop me from doom spiraling, this part of me that wants to doom spiral and catastrophize, isn’t that a curious thing? What’s up with that?

Well, it turns out a lot of different people have a lot of different things to say about this and they’ve all accumulated all kinds of evidence based upon the standards of their disciplines which are rooted in the core values and beliefs that they hold, and that’s all well and good and, holy moley, good job everyone! That’s a lot of work and you can probably take a smoke or yoga or snack or nap or gap-out-on-electronics break now. For me, however, the following hypotheses feel relevant.

First, if I not only experience a doom spiral but am, in fact, the one choosing to initiate the doom spiral (as I believe that I am), that means part of me really wants to doom spiral. Let’s call that part the unconscious part of me (which I am now calling into consciousness). So, while the conscious me experiences itself as a victim of a catastrophizing process that it out of its control and wholly undesirable, the unconscious part of me is in control of the spiral, chooses to spiral, drives me deeper into the spiral, and desires all of this. Huh. Interesting.

Second, if the unconscious part of me chooses to spiral and catastrophize, it does so because it is actually soothed and comforted by this experience, even though the conscious part of me experiences the whole thing as highly distressing, exhausting, and discomfiting. Woh. That’s really interesting. Why might that be?

Well, developing an attitude of curiosity about my distress has helped me to sit with it in a more open and accepting manner. Instead of punishing myself for feeling distressed, or saying “distressed = bad; not distressed = good” I have been working to move away from the mentality that there are “positive/good” or “negative/bad” feelings. Instead, I have been operating with the perspective that no feeling is either good or bad but all feelings are more or less comfortable or uncomfortable. Being distressed feels pretty uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean it’s “bad” or “negative.” So I’ve been sitting with it more. Uncomfortable doesn’t have to be unbearable, right? It might doom spiral towards something that feels increasingly unbearable, but I’m learning that the more curious I am about that which is uncomfortable, the less likely it is to turn into that which is unbearable. Befriending some degree of discomfort or distress turns out to be a better strategy for lessening discomfort than simply trying to expel all discomfort or distress. Rushing to expel all distress frequently only ends up increasing the distress because it ain’t gonna go away! Why? Because, as I observed earlier, an unconscious part of me is trying to soothe itself via that doom spiraling and if the conscious part of me tries to interfere with that process, then the unconscious part of me pushes harder to spiral and catastrophize—and it’s not going to stop ‘til it gets what it wants! So, it seems like how intense, prolonged, and painful the doom spiral will be, is exacerbated by this struggle between the conscious and unconscious parts of me wanting to be comforted and soothed by polar opposite things. Thus, when the conscious part of me becomes more open and curious, the unconscious part of me can sometimes arrive at a comforting resolution faster. Okay. Hmmm. Also interesting.

As I have developed an attitude of curiosity in relationship to my distress, I have also come to another conclusion. I actually have two categorically kinds of distress within me and they require very different modes of care but I frequently conflate the two or offer Care Model B to Distress Type A and Care Model A to Distress Type B. That confusion can have rather painful consequences. I’ll explain why in a moment. But, first, what are the two types of distress? I think that there is the distress that is my own and there is the distress that has been given to me. I’ll begin with the latter.


My parents taught me a few things as a child. They taught me how to budget and how to do laundry. They taught me to believe in hell and in love and to mix those two things up together. They taught me to be curious about nature. They taught me to be on time for things. They taught me that nobody, nothing, and nowhere was ever truly safe (I did a lot of work to unlearn this but I’ve written about that elsewhere). And they taught me to be distressed. My parents worried about a lot of things. Unresolved traumas, the ever-present threat of explosive violence, lies and facades, and enforced isolations—all of these things created a distressing environment. The passed their distress on to their children and, in the process were able to experience some soothing or comfort. How so?

Well, let’s imagine that both of my parents felt distressed about how they were as parents to their children. In my own experiences and from what I have observed of others, few things are more distressing to a parent than feeling like you are failing or harming your own child. So when, in fact, you actually are failing and harming your own child (as we might imagine happening with my parents), then you will feel a lot of distress about this. Your children, in turn will pick up on this. They will become distressed about you feeling like you are failing or harming your children and because young children are so full of love when it comes to their parents, they will take this on and try to soothe, comfort, and reassure their parents. My parents are worried that they aren’t good parents. I worry about them being worried. So I try to reassure them that they are good parents. And they are soothed (at least for a little while).

Myra Bluebond-Langer illustrates all of this very well in her classic study of the private worlds of dying children. Parents become distressed that their children are dying in palliative care. But the parents try to hide this from their children. But children (ages 3 to 9 in her study), are much smarter than adults assume and they often quickly figure out that they are dying (even if they don’t fully understand what all that means—but, then again, who does?). However, the children then hide the fact that they are aware of this from their parents in order to comfort and soothe their parents. Thus, parents become distressed about something, the children become aware of this, and although the parents claim what they are doing is being do they do not want to fully face., They try to protect their children form this something by hiding it but, in fact, they’ve just created a came of mutual deception that is soothing, not to the child (who then has to navigate their understanding and experience of dying qua dying without parental support), but to the parent.

In other words, many of us learn as children that when adults are stressed out, they create an environment that is stressful for others (like their children), and those others take up that stress, and then work to soothe and comfort the adults. People are often born into this kind of environment, fraught with sticky emotions (to use the language of Sara Ahmed). It becomes as natural and invisible as the air they breathe, and then, unless something significant happens to push them in a different direction, it just makes sense to think they would go on to replicate this pattern with their peers, partners, co-workers, friends, and kids as they age and continue on their way in life.

Two things follow from this. First, based on my childhood, I’m probably very vulnerable to being used as a receptacle for other people’s distress and, in fact, I almost certainly have some other people’s distress deeply lodged within me (which of my worries and are actually worries and fears that belonged to my parents but passed on to me?). Second, based on my childhood, I might also be prone to replicating this pattern and trying to soothe myself by passing my distress on to others (I have worked to not pass things on to my children in this way, but I don’t think I put in the same work into other relationships; in part because I didn’t think about how parent-child relational dynamics like this can also be replicated in, for example, intimate partner relationships). Thus, one of the reasons why I might catastrophize and doom spiral is because I need to make people around me feel distressed enough about what is distressing me that they then work to comfort me. This need not be an explicit thought but can be an unconscious way in which we go about implicitly structuring an environment. This makes sense to me. Passing distress to others so that we can be soothed tends to conflict with how we like to view ourselves as and so, when we do act like this—as I think we actually do a good deal of the time—we tend to do so unconsciously.

So, okay, this suggests the need to learn more ways to deal with my own distress (a theme I will pick up in the next section), but what am I to do with the distress that has been given to me? Well, partly I think I need to learn to stop and choose whether or not I will carry the distress of others and, if so, how much and for how long, and ask myself why I am making that choice at that moment with that party, instead of simply absorbing and carrying whatever distress I encounter out there in the world. On a more personal level, however, I believe that I also need to stop and ask myself how much of the distress that I identify as my own is actually distress that belongs to someone else but which they gave to me and then it got stuck within me and then, over time, I came to identify it as my own.

For example, when I was younger, I experienced persistent suicidal ideation. Whenever I was upset (even about small things), I would begin to ruminate and think, “I wish I was dead,” or “I should just kill myself,” or “I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this if I was dead,” or “God, I wish I could just lie down and fall asleep and never wake up again,” and so on. This voice repeated itself so often in my head that it had become a form of white noise, a soundtrack to my life that I hardly noticed because it was always there. However, when I got older and started to heal from some things, I became much more aware of the persistent presence of this voice. I then realized that what I had mistaken for my own voice (because it was coming from my mind), was actually the voice of my father who consistently communicated to me as a child that he wished I was dead and who, ultimately, abandoned me to live or die on the streets as a teen. In fact, having survived all that and fought so hard to get to where I was in life, I realized that I did not wish to be dead but, instead, when things got difficult, I simply wished to live a life with less suffering and with more satisfaction. So, when the voice would appear and repeatedly assert, “I wish I was dead, I wish I was dead, I wish I was dead,” I would speak back to it and say, “No, that’s not true. That’s what my father wanted. As for me, I want to live but I just don’t want to feel as much distress and discomfort as I feel right now.” Thus, my suicidal ideation was actually my father’s homicidal ideation that he transferred to me when I was very young and that I mistook for my own thoughts. As we know, this happens all the time when those who are harmed adopt the perspectives of those who cause them harm. Children—and we all were children once—are especially vulnerable to this. My father likely inherited much of this from his mom, who likely received it from her dad, and this is how intergenerational forms of trauma and abuse carry forward in time. Receiving and passing on various forms of distress can also be a part of this cycle. Refusing to pass on forms of distress that have been passed on to me is part of breaking the cycle.

We can undergo an exploratory process motivated by openness and curiosity about ourselves that helps us to dislodge the various distresses of others that have been planted within us. Thus, to take another example, if I am worried about money (and, hey, that’s all of us under the regime of neoliberal austerity), I can ask if the intensity of panic and discomfort that I feel is, in fact, related to my father’s distress about money. I thought we grew up poor (wearing hand-me-downs, drinking powdered milk, riding my mom’s old speed bike to school because he wouldn’t give me another one, and having to pay rent once I turned thirteen), but my dad was actually wealthy and a miser who clung to his treasure hoard like the only thing that was keeping him safe. So maybe the specific way in which I worry about has a lot to do with him passing his distress on to me.

The thing to do, in these instances, is to learn how to expel and reject the distress others gave you as not valid for you to carry. Take back the parts of you they have stolen and give back the parts of themselves they left in place of your stolen parts. But this is a tricky thing and requires a fair bit of time, patience, trial and error, and discernment. Why? Because some of your distress really is your own and that distress shouldn’t be expelled but needs to be validated and tenderly cared for and if you try to expel it you are simply repeating a story (perhaps also learned from someone who harmed you when you were a child) that you don’t matter, that your feelings don’t count, and that you aren’t worthy of love and attention. We, each of us for ourselves, need to learn what is ours to carry and tend to and what not for us to take up. Some of us might need to learn to carry more, some of us might need to learn to carry less. Most of us probably need to learn to carry otherwise than how we were taught by the environment in which we were raised and by the people who formed us when we were brand new.


Okay, so if I’m learning to reject the distress that others have tried to pile onto and into me, how can I simultaneously learn to validate the distress that is my own—in part, precisely so that I don’t pass it on to others like my children?

Well, having spoken of curiosity, openness, and exploring different outlooks in a process that we know will contain some element of trial and error, I’d like to suggest that we begin to ask ourselves how we might take that which distresses us less seriously and treat it more playfully. This feels deeply counter-intuitive. After all, I reckon a good many of us—myself included—like to think that we only get very upset about very upsetting things which then, of course, must be very serious things. Consequently, taking a more playful approach feels offensive and invalidating. Hmmm, but why does it feel that way? After all, there are many very important things that we do not take seriously and, in fact, which we destroy when we take them too seriously. Play is one such thing. The importance of play for our personal and collective development, wellness, and all around enjoyment of life is well-established. But if we then treat all play as a deadly serious thing, well, play itself is destroyed. So let’s begin by knocking a small wedge between that which is important and that which is serious and let’s try to imagine some things being important but not so serious that we can’t approach them in a more playful way.

Let’s also imagine that our selves could be just that kind of thing. But wait! Don’t I want people to treat me and my big feelings—my doom spiraling and my catastrophizing—very seriously so that I know that I am important to them? Well, sure, that makes sense. But what if I’m settling for forcing people to take me seriously because I come from a childhood where the people I wanted to play with me (e.g. my dad) did not? What if I compel people to take me seriously (i.e. pass of my distress to them) because I’ve accepted that as the only thing I could plug into the hole that was left by the absence of people who simply rejoiced in my company? Oof. How, then, do I stop believing that this shitty substitute solution is not the only way in which I can related to myself? How to I rejoice in my own company? How do I play with myself (hmmm… might need to rephrase that…)? How do I engage with myself in a playful manner that fosters a relationship where both my conscious and unconscious selves rejoice in each other’s company? And how do I bring that attitude and outlook to precisely the moments when I am feeling most distressed and inclined to catastrophize and doom spiral? Instead of punishing myself for being distressed, how do I say, holy shit, I’m fucking stressed to the max, how can I have some fun with this? How, in other words, do I genuinely rejoice in my own company at the very moment when I am most uncomfortable being me?

These are great questions! I bet they have great answers! I feel excited about them. I feel like I’m doing something both important and fun. Writing this piece is, in fact, an example of one way of engaging in this play. I was distressed. I was curious about my distress. I played with it. And now I have this pretty little gift to give to all of you. I hope you have fun playing with it, too, and that you rejoice with yourself as you read it just as I am rejoicing with myself now that I have written it.



Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd Ed. Routledge: New York, 2015.

Berlant, Lauren. On the Inconvenience of Other People. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2022.

Bluebond-Langer, Myra. The Private Words of Dying Children. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Bowlby, John. Separation: Anxiety and Anger. Attachment and Loss Vol. 2. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

Dana, Deb. Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centered Practices. New York: Norton, 2020.

Fleury, Cynthia. Here Lies Bitterness: Healing from Resentment. Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 2023.

Frisvold, Nicholas de Mattos. Pomba Gira: Pomba Gira and the Quimbanda of Mbumba Nzila. Shropshire: Scarlet Imprint, 2023.

Oudshoorn, Daniel. A Magnificent Work. Eugene: Resource Publications, 2020.

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