This paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork in south Bristol, United Kingdom, and on the south Atlantic island of St Helena. It addresses the relationship between the experience of psychosocial distress, the language used to express such distress and the socio-cultural constraints on both language and experience. Accounts of emotional distress were obtained from interviews with 36 informants in south Bristol and with 40 informants on St Helena. Informants in both settings shared a Euro-American discourse on the self in which emotional distress is conceived as a breakdown in human agency. This discourse is linked to narrative as a way of depicting and re-affirming individual agency. A prototypical concept of narrative is used in this paper to interpret accounts of emotional distress. This interpretation demonstrates the usefulness of the idea of narrative for understanding such experiences.