Emotional Wellbeing

Mental Health



Mandy Kloppers

Secondary stress – getting upset about being upset

Unfortunately, this is quite a common problem – getting upset about being upset. Here are a few examples:

A boy meets a girl he likes and he blushes.  He then feels like a fool for blushing – he is embarrassed about being embarrassed. This is very common in people who experience social anxiety.

A businessman lies awake in bed worrying about his workload. He becomes aware that he can’t fall asleep and starts to worry that he will be awake all night. This worry then preys on his mind and keeps him awake. He can’t fall asleep because of his fear of staying awake.

A politician who criticises herself at every opportunity with bouts of depression begins to think, “What a useless ineffective person I am, I am always depressed”. This thought does nothing to improve her mood and she becomes further depressed.

See the vicious cycle??

Ego disturbance versus discomfort disturbance

Getting upset about being upset involves the above two components. In ego disturbance a person thinks: “If I get upset, if I become fearful/anxious/depressed, it shows that I am inadequate or a seriously flawed person. It shows I am a worthless failure”.

In discomfort disturbance, the individual thinks, “If I get upset or become fearful/anxious/depressed, that would be awful. It would be a dreadful intolerable feeling. I cannot stand to undergo such anguish”.

We place far too much pressure on ourselves to cope, be strong and manage life well. The thing is, we are human and as such we are fallible. It’s normal and it’s okay to get upset. When we tell ourselves – “I MUST not get upset/anxious/depressed” we put added pressure on ourselves. It’s FAR better to say, “I would prefer not to get upset/fearful/anxious but it’s okay if I do. Being upset is uncomfortable (discomfort) but it doesn’t mean I am inadequate (ego) in any way.

Can you see the difference?

Many of us go to great lengths to avoid unpleasant emotions and when we feel them, we then become even more worried as we feel this is a bad sign, we read too much into it. Learn to cope with the discomfort – it’s a normal part of life and doesn’t mean anything bad about you personally.

We creat secondary problems for ourselves by berating ourselves for feeling normal emotions to regular life events.

What do to about secondary stress

Here is a simple plan to help deal with secondary stress:

  1. Specify your upset emotion

Try to identify your Primary Problem. Is it anxiety, depression, guilt or hostility?

2. Determine whether there’s a secondary problem

Are you upsetting yourself about that initial emotional upset?

A general upset/worry that seems to appear from nowhere, not directly related to anything concrete in your life, is a clue. In all probability, it really is related to something specific – your experience of feeling anxiou or depressed about some practical problem. You are worried that you may get anxious – geeting upset about being upset.

A client of mine often worries about feeling overwhelmed at work. She feels dread when she goes to the office and panic arises when she thinks about all the papers she has to get through on her desk every morning.

3. Identify your “MUSTS”

What are you telling yourself that creates your secondary problem? Perhaps you are telling yourself – I MUST not get anxious or else I am inadequate. I MUST not feel nervous or awkward.

4. Challenge your “MUSTS”

Where’s the evidence that I must not feel anxious? There is no “rule book” that states you may not under any circumstances feel anxious or frearful. Thik about it – this is a rule you have chosen to adhere to and it’s not helpful.

Clearly it’s preferable not to upset yourself as it’s uncomfortable but it really isn’t the end of the world. In fact – congratulate yourself for being an active feeling member if the human race..Hoorah – you aren’t alone, you’re just like the rest of us!

Make an effort to accept yourself with all your ’emotional rainbow’. Becoming unnecessarily upset is a human trait and is no reason to castigate yourself.

You are accepting yourself and your emotions if:

You believe that although feeling upset is distinctly uncomfortable, it’s an essential aspect of the human condition.

You see that, although such feelings detract from your enjoyment of life, they don’t damage all of it.

You’re aware that unpleasant feelings tend to wax and wane.

You recognise that dwelling upon them only tends to prolong and intensify them needlessly.

You know that it’s best to face up to them rather than avoid them.

You are self sabotaging if:

You tell yourself you can’t stand feeling upset.

You believe that life is terrible because you’re feeling down.

You tell yourself that life SHOULDN’T be so uncomfortable. (It is – accept it)

You regularly avoid situations just because you associate them with some emotional discomfort (eg. applying for a new job, dating etc)

Mandy X






Photo by Aliyah Jamous on Unsplash