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Cognitive behavioral therapy for stress management

What Causes Stress?

There are three kinds of stress-producing factors, which can be categorized as (1) objective, (2) subjective, and (3) interactive.

Objective factors:

Many events and circumstances are naturally stressful.  Losing a loved one or having a medical illness, for example, contribute a certain amount of stress to our lives.  Even positive events, like a job promotion or wedding, can cause stress.  However, the amount or degree of stress that we experience varies from person to person, typically due to subjective factors.

Subjective factors:

Our thoughts about our experiences play a significant role in determining whether or not something is stressful and the resultant amount of stress that we experience.  Running late for an appointment, for example, we can ruminate about how it’s unfair and unacceptable, which increases our stress.  Alternatively, we can accept that it’s happening and consider other thoughts, such as the possibility of rescheduling the appointment or even what we’re going to have for dinner.  At such times however, we need to be particularly aware of possible stress-producing thoughts and make deliberate efforts to ensure that our thinking is balanced and reasonable.

Interactive factors:

The way that we interact with the world around us also plays a significant role in our experience of stress.  Our behavior helps shape our experience of stress and how others might respond to us.  For example, if we wake-up five minutes before we’re supposed to be at work, then we’re going to experience more stress than if we wake-up an hour or two in advance.  Also, the ways in which we care for ourselves (or don’t) influence our level of stress.  Countless studies have detailed the benefits of physical exercise, which also helps us better manage stress.  Diet also is important:  a balanced repertoire of whole foods is much healthier than a steady diet of alcohol, processed foods, and sweets.

Negative thoughts can create more stress in our lives. Not only can “negative affect,” or being in a bad mood, color our experience so that many of the things we experience seem more stressful and even overwhelming, but our bad mood can be contagious, and can even cause others to treat us in a less friendly way, perpetuating negativity in us and virtually everyone we encounter, to a degree.

It is easy to get trapped into the habit of thinking negatively, and changing those thought processes is a goal in cognitive therapy.

Many people have found this to be a useful tool in their stress management strategy.

Cognitive therapy has been found to be effective in the treatment of many issues such as anxiety disorders, depression, and even severe stress. Whether the stress is contributing to mood disorders or is just creating unpleasant feelings that are interfering with a happy lifestyle, cognitive therapy (or a mix of cognitive and behavioral therapy) can be a very effective mode of treatment.

The Idea Behind Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy for stress rests on the premise that it’s not simply the events in our lives that cause us stress, it’s the way we think about them.

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For example, two people may be caught in traffic. One person could view this situation as an opportunity to listen to music or get lost in thought and become (or remain) relaxed. Another person may focus on the wasted time or the feeling of being trapped, and become distressed.

There are hundreds of examples of how our thoughts and our negative self-talk color our experiences. These can lead to a triggered stress response or a calm demeanor.

Virtually all of the thought patterns that negatively impact our experiences can be categorized into one of 10 common cognitive distortions. Therapists using a cognitive approach work with clients to recognize and alter these habitually negative thought patterns. You can also work on some of them at home.

Using Cognitive Therapy for Stress Relief

Many people have found a cognitive approach to be wonderfully helpful and much quicker than other therapeutic approaches.

There is no standard length or number of cognitive therapy sessions needed for the treatment of stress. It depends on what your needs are. After a few sessions, some people see improvement. Other people may need months of therapy before they feel better. 

This is significantly faster than the years-on-the-couch rate of psychoanalytic therapy, which is what many people still think of when they think of “going to a shrink.”

Support for the effectiveness of this approach comes from research on optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles. It is also revealed by the positive results that come from cognitive therapy for stress, or a mix of cognitive and behavioral therapy.

Cognitive therapy has also been combined with the practice of mindfulness. This created mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which has shown promising effects as well.

Giving It a Try

When interviewing potential therapists, ask about their experience with this approach. You can also search out someone who specializes in cognitive therapeutic interventions.

If you’re not interested in seeing a therapist at this point but would like to use some cognitive techniques to reduce your stress levels, you can begin at home. There are plenty of books, online courses, and resources that can help you learn to change your thinking patterns.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re not sure if you need cognitive therapy, you might start by asking your physician. Explain your symptoms and ask whether your doctor thinks a referral to a therapist might be helpful. Seeking help can be a little scary but it might be one of the best choices you ever make.

Everyone experiences stress. Stress can come from anywhere: day-to-day activities, relationships, work, life changes, illness, even from fun events.

Everyone reacts differently to it. Many people don’t even know they are stressed until they begin to experience serious symptoms. Symptoms can be psychological, physical, or both.

What Are the Symptoms of Stress?

Symptoms can include irritability, lack of concentration, worrying, minor headaches, eating too much or too little, not sleeping well, lower back pain, rashes, an upset stomach or ulcers, migraine or tension headaches, high blood pressure, and chest pains, to name a few. Stress can also make physical problems worse, lower your resistance to disease, and affect how well your body responds to sickness and how well you recover from minor setbacks.

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Stress affects us all in one way or another. Some people deal well with their stress. Some people have learned to identify their stressors (those things that cause people to feel stress) and deal with them appropriately. Unfortunately, many of us do not deal effectively with the stressors in our lives.

Stress Management Techniques

Things I Can Do on My Own

Do you work too much? Do you get so busy with the kids that you are too tired to go out and have fun or relax? Do you put things off until the last minute? Do you avoid dealing with problems? Do you feel stuck in your life? Do you plan too much but feel ineffective?

People can manage their own stressors by taking time out of their busy lives and identifying potential conflicts, changes, worries, or time constraints that they have. First, figure out what your stressors are; then, see if the stressor is within or outside of your control.

For example, if your job is based on deadlines, unless you decide to change jobs, the stressor is outside of your control. In this case, while you can’t control the stressors, you may be able to do things to make them more manageable. For instance, in a job with tight deadlines, you might schedule 5-minute breaks, just to catch your breath and relax. Also, you might try to get to bed earlier so that you are more refreshed and less tired; you might even try to delegate more or see if the work flow can be rearranged to make things move more smoothly. A key is to determine what is within your control to change and what isn’t, and then try to affect those things that are within your control.

What is within your control is what you do for yourself to help get rid of the stress on a regular basis. Some people work out at a gym, others meditate. So you can influence how stressors affect you. A lot of times it is something we are doing to ourselves that makes something even more stressful. In the example we just discussed, perhaps you did not take a break to eat a healthy lunch, or you are really mad that a co-worker left extra work for you, but feel there is nothing you can do about it. In the first example, you could try to schedule a break or eat more healthy snacks; in the second example, you could talk with your colleague about the extra work.

We all know about eating healthy, sleeping enough, exercising, relaxing, enjoying friends and family, and taking care of our bodies. However, many of us don’t do these things and, consequently, we add to our stress level. Some people can figure out what to do on their own, but many of us require a behavioral psychologist to help us put together our own unique program that matches our individual needs.

There are several techniques that can be taught by trained behavior therapists or cognitive behavior therapists to help you identify and effectively deal with your stress.

Therapy Techniques I Can Learn

There are many techniques available to manage stress. Below are some that are commonly used by behavior therapists to help their patients reduce stress. You and your therapist must thoroughly assess which of these would be most useful for your life and your unique stressors.

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1. Progressive Relaxation Training and Controlled Breathing Techniques effectively reduce physical tension, anxiety, and overall stress level. Progressive Relaxation Training involves a series of exercises that train your body and mind to become gradually more relaxed. It requires an initial time investment, but, with practice, can be effective in reducing stress. Controlled Breathing requires less time at first, and works well with people who can clear their mind and learn to regulate their breathing, thus relaxing the rest of the body. Sometimes this is harder to do because many people who are used to being stressed tend to breath in a shallow and quick manner. Your therapist is trained to determine which individuals respond better to which treatment, and can also help determine which technique is likely to benefit you most. Some therapists may use biofeedback techniques to help determine which techniques work best for you.

2. Cognitive Restructuring works very well with accumulated stress and for people who tend to overreact or underreact to situations. In cognitive restructuring, your therapist will help you look at situations to see when you might be incorrectly viewing a problem and help you see the problem for what it is. For instance, many of us make assumptions or have unnecessary worries that go far beyond what the situation calls for. Your therapist can help you identify when your thoughts and feelings are inappropriate to the situation and when they actually contribute to your stress. They can teach you a method to catch yourself when you do it, and teach you how to use logic to revise your reaction to a level appropriate to the situation. This treatment works well for people feeling stuck in their lives, who fly off the handle, and who get upset even with little things. Because this technique teaches you to question how you think about things (or how you feel about things), this also helps people feel more comfortable standing up for themselves and about their ability to be effective in their own lives.

3. Assertiveness Training and Communication Skills Training can be used jointly with one of the above techniques or may be effective when used alone. Both techniques teach you how to deal with difficulties in a fair and tactful way, where everyone’s rights are considered. Many people avoid dealing with stressful situations, such as asking for more money or asking the *neighbors to keep their cat away from the bird feeder. They feel they have no right to ask for what they want, fear they will make matters worse, or fear rejection. Learning how to approach others, speak up for oneself, and use good speaking and listening skills can be extremely effective in reducing the stress that results from interacting— or the mere prospect of interacting—with others.

4. Problem-Solving Techniques are extremely helpful in combination with the above or on their own to help people, couples, groups, and families reduce stress. You learn techniques that help you focus on solutions instead of focusing on the problem. Because we often focus on the problem, rather than thinking of solutions, we increase stress and feel hopeless, helpless, or out of control. The therapist can teach you how to use these techniques and discover ways to focus on solutions, which will help overcome the stressors or, at least, minimize their effects.