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Caring for Yourself and Others: Stress, Distress, and Crisis

We all experience stress and a range of emotions including sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame. This is part of being human.

Moderate, short-lived stress can improve performance, but can become unhealthy when it disrupts our day-to-day functioning. Stress can turn into distress when the demands we experience exceed our resources to cope. Further, whether it be our genetics, life experiences, or the shame that keeps things inside, we may not get the help we need, and may find ourselves in a state of crisis. This can include engaging in self-harm, thinking about suicide, or having thoughts of harming others.

Wellness at Penn believes in a community of care and that we are all responsible for looking out for our own well-being and the well-being of others. The bottom line? You are not alone. And there is hope.

Helping Yourself

Getting help for your mental health can be hard. You may be holding many different experiences, emotions, or thoughts that you keep inside due to shame, stigma, or because you are not sure where to turn. Your views towards mental health, understanding of your own emotional health, or comfort seeking help may differ based on your personal life experiences or cultural context. One way to support your mental health is to recognize your own personal signs and to acknowledge that you are struggling. Once you are aware, there is a lot you can do to help yourself feel better. This includes sharing with people you trust, engaging in coping strategies, or seeking professional support.

What are some signs that I’m struggling?

  • Stress:
    • Irritability, sadness, or worrying about the future
    • Lack of energy or inability to relax
    • Physical complaints (headaches, muscle tension, digestive discomfort)
  • Distress:
    • Sudden changes in your mood/anxiety levels
    • Patterns of behavior (issues with sleep/motivation; multiple absences)
    • Expressions of distress (talking, texting, emailing, posting about distress)
  • Crisis:
    • Suicidal/homicidal thoughts, statements, or attempts
    • Self-harm (cutting, burning)
    • Extreme anxiety or panic (difficulty breathing)
    • A loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things that are not there)

Why is sharing so important?
Watch i share: Connection, Healing, & Hope to hear Penn students discuss the power of sharing and how they got support.

Helping Others

Sometimes we notice changes in the people we care about. You may become aware that someone close to you is speaking, feeling, or behaving in ways that feel concerning. These changes may be sudden or seem to be lasting longer than usual. It is important to remember that people may express or experience these signs differently. Based on one’s cultural context and personal life experiences, someone may express distress through physical manifestations or consider emotional expressions as a sign of weakness. This may lead to shame or embarrassment opening up to others. Trust your instincts and always check in with others with care and acceptance. Be curious and open to understand someone’s story.

What are some signs that someone else is struggling?

  • Stress:
    • You notice them exhibiting signs of irritability, sadness, or worrying about the future
    • They lack energy or the inability to relax
    • They’re demonstrating an increase in physical complaints (headaches, muscle tension, digestive discomfort)
  • Distress:
    • They may show sudden changes in their regular behavior (mood/anxiety levels)
    • You notice new patterns of behavior (issues with sleep/motivation; multiple absences)
    • You notice expressions of distress (talking, texting, emailing, posting about distress)
  • Crisis:
    • They demonstrate suicidal/homicidal thoughts, statements, or attempts
    • You’ve seen signs of self-harm (cutting, burning)
    • You notice they have extreme anxiety or panic (difficulty breathing)
    • You notice a loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things that are not there)

How can I support someone I care about?

  • Make the time and space to connect: “Want to grab some coffee and talk?”
  • Tell the person what you are noticing: “I’ve noticed you seem more isolated than usual.”
  • Validate with care and empathy: “I’m so glad you opened up to me.”; “I’m here to listen.”
  • Use active listening skills like open-ended questions and summarizing what the speaker said: “How have you been coping?”; ”It sounds like you have been struggling.”
  • Explore options for the problem & connect to resources: “How can I support you?”; “How would you feel contacting the counseling center? I am happy to go with you.”

Where can I refer others for help?

  • You can always refer others to Student Health and Counseling for 24/7 support at 215-746-WELL (9355).
  • If you have an urgent concern about someone, Get Help Now.
  • You can also view this extensive list of Campus Resources.

If you are concerned about online harassment and bullying, such as doxing, cyberbullying, and trolling, visit Penn's Online Harassment page