The Affects (3): Distress – Anguish
In a previous post, I have looked at affects in general. In this, the third in an intermittent series, I look at individual affects; today ‘Distress – Anguish’.
Affects and brain activity
Now, in the other blog-posts in the series I have mentioned how the affects are linked to brain activity, and that brain activity can be in one of three patterns; increasing, remaining steady or decreasing. Distress – Anguish is one of those affects where the brain activity is flat. Now this might seem strange – surely distress and anguish represent an increasing pressure?
The research of Silvan Tomkins would suggest that rather than an increasing pressure it is a steady-state stimulus that brings on Distress-Anguish when the stimulus is at too high a level for us to be comfortable with. It is the sustained nature of the stimulus, without pause or relent, that we find so difficult to tolerate and will eventually produce this affect in us.
An example of how we experience this is situations where there is a noise – such as a car-alarm or road-works or someone else’s music –that there doesn’t seem to be any relief from. It doesn’t get louder and it doesn’t get softer – the stimulus is steady state but we find that our reaction, our distress and anguish continues to build.
Density of the stimulus
Naturally, we can experience times when we are calm and we are subject to a steady-state stimulus (such as relaxing music) that doesn’t produce Distress and Anguish in us. So why is the result calm at some times and Distress – Anguish at other times? It is the density of the stimulus that seems to be important here. Nathanson gives us the example of temperature. If we are in a room and the temperature is fixed at a level that we find comfortable, we don’t react to it.
However, if the temperature is fixed at a level that is too cold or too hot for us, then we will start to experience Distress-Anguish, and the more that the temperature is different from the temperature that we are comfortable with the more of this affect we will feel. Nathanson also makes the interesting point that it doesn’t matter what the stimulus is – if it is unpleasant and it is constant it will produce the affect of Distress-Anguish.
Similarly, if there are a number of different stimuli that together all add up to something that is higher that the person’s ability to cope with them, the result will be Distress – Anguish. We see this when things that would be manageable for us on a good day become way too much on a bad day.
We all know this feeling – it is the feeling of stress.
How to reduce Distress – Anguish
So, what can we do to reduce the level of Distress – Anguish we have? It seems the answer might be in changing the pattern of the stimulus. Rather being subject to a steady stream of stimulus, do what you can to break it up. Try to get away from the source of the distress (the temperature or the noise in my example above), even if only for a short time. If you can’t do that, then perhaps you can try to introduce some variation in the pattern, even if it makes the stimulus stronger for a while. This means you might deliberately increase the stimulus. Sounds crazy? This may have the effect of decreasing your experience of distress for a short while. Importantly, it might also a positive signal to yourself that you are in control.
Next time, I’ll talk about Anger-Rage.
– Tim Hill
Kelly V. C. (2009) “A Primer of Affect Psychology” www.tomkins.org/uploads/Primer_of_Affect_Psychology.pdf
Nathanson D. L. (1992) “Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex and the Birth of the Self”, Norton, New York