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Keywords:

  • concept analysis;
  • strain;
  • stress;
  • distress;
  • psychological distress;
  • nursing

Background.  The term ‘distress’ is frequently used in nursing literature to describe patient discomfort related to signs and symptoms of acute or chronic illness, pre- or post-treatment anxiety or compromised status of fetuses or the respiratory system. ‘Psychological distress’ may more accurately describe the patient condition to which nurses respond than does the term ‘distress’. Psychological distress is seldom defined as a distinct concept and is often embedded in the context of strain, stress and distress. This creates confusion for nurses attempting to manage the care of people experiencing psychological distress.

Aims.  This paper is a concept analysis of psychological distress based on Walker and Avant's (1995) criteria that identifies the attributes, antecedents, and consequences of psychological distress based upon the findings of the literature review. In addition, empirical references are identified and constructed cases presented.

Methods.  A literature search was conducted using MEDLINE, CINAHL, Ovid, PsychINFO, and Cancer Lit databases over the last 50 years. The purposes of this concept analysis were: (1) to establish the concept of psychological distress as a clear and distinct concept, separate from strain, stress and distress, and (2) to provide nurses with a base of knowledge from which to plan effective clinical interventions.

Findings.  Content analysis of the literature revealed that, although used frequently in health care literature, the origin of the concept of psychological distress has not been clearly articulated and is ill-defined.

Conclusions.  Psychological distress is a serious problem faced by many of the people whom nurses encounter on a daily basis. An understanding of the concept of psychological distress will help nurses ameliorate this problem in patients. Nursing research related to the exploration of psychological distress is also needed.