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All doctors in a London Teaching Hospital were sent a self-administered, anonymous questionnaire, to study past episodes of emotional distress. We inquired about frequency of past and current emotional distress, sources of distress, effects on work and home life, type of help sought and perceived outcome of that help. Of 320 doctors, 210 (66%) responded. One hundred and forty-one (68%) reported previous episodes of moderate or severe emotional distress. Logistic regression revealed that distress was significantly more common in younger doctors and in women. Many respondents reported work problems as causing their distress and work was frequently adversely affected by episodes of distress. Professional help was rarely sought; non-professional help was from family and friends. Current emotional distress was related to a history of past distress, especially among the most junior doctors. We conclude that past emotional distress is reported by most doctors, with work pressures an important contributing factor. Doctors do not appear to use available sources of professional help. Our findings confirm that doctors have difficulty disclosing psychological problems. Specific programmes aimed at prevention and management of distress in doctors need to be initiated and evaluated.