Therapist

How can talking to a therapist help with stress

  • Stress is a normal part of life—but it can become harmful if it grows in excess, as a result of our failing to address and manage it properly.
  • Fortunately, if you are struggling with stress management, a therapist can help you: first, they’ll assist you in identifying the major stressors in your life.
  • Additionally, therapy will serve as that safe place for releasing all of your emotions: your therapist will help you to understand and address these difficult feelings.
  • Finally, a therapist can help you to determine effective coping mechanisms as well as self-care activities that will help you better manage stress.
  • These mechanisms and activities can be simple, as they often involve things like exercising, listening to music, and deep breathing.

The car isn’t starting. Work is hectic. Your husband is in a bad mood. And the kids won’t listen. You try to take a deep breath in, as every “bad” thing pushes to the forefront of your mind. But you fail to regain control—and you’re left wondering what to do, where to turn.

Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear: stress is a normal part of all of our lives. It’s when we fail to process and manage this stress that it becomes harmful. Licensed Clinical Social Worker Alexis Elliott explains: “It is important to note that stress is a part of life. There is good stress and bad stress, but it is all around us. Stress itself can be harnessed as a useful tool for motivation, it’s not all bad. But it’s when we have an abundance of unchecked stressors in our lives and ineffective coping mechanisms to deal with it that it becomes a problem.” That’s when therapy or counseling can make a big difference. If you’re struggling with stress management, a mental health professional can help you identify your primary stressors, confront your feelings, and discover effective means for coping with stress:

1. Bring awareness to the major stressors in your life.

If you’re considering working with a counselor or therapist for stress management, you can expect them to help you identify the major stressors in your life. “Therapy can bring about awareness of what is actually causing an individual stress,” Stevon Lewis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, explains. “Oftentimes, we aren’t aware of what is creating feelings of stress and making us feel overwhelmed. Talk therapy can assist with identifying stressors and singling out which is causing you the most distress.” He gives an example: “Sometimes we are stressed because we can’t or won’t say “no”. As a result, we take on too much and neglect ourselves. Therapy can help a person work through why they feel the need to say “yes” to everything and implement more appropriate boundaries that allow for them to place some priority over their own needs.”

2. Provide a healthy outlet for releasing your emotions.

Also, therapy serves as that safe place for releasing all of your emotions, even the ones you’ve kept tucked away. “Therapy techniques give people an opportunity to deal with and offload the emotions in this proverbial bag, which ultimately decreases the stress response in the body,” says Tiffany Toombs, Mental Wellness Expert. “By facing and addressing one’s issues and finding a resolution or peace with their problems, they subsequently lower their stress levels, allow the sympathetic nervous system to relax and turn off, which decreases the concentration of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol in the body. By switching off the sympathetic nervous system and lowering our stress levels, we have a greater capacity to face and address future stresses with ease as they come.”

3. Help you find effective coping mechanisms and self-care activities.

Finally, counselors and therapists can help you identify coping mechanisms and self-care activities that work well for you. “It is important to help clients identify coping mechanisms to implement into their everyday life that are doable for them in order to manage their stress in a healthy and effective way,” Psychotherapist Ariel Sank explains. “Self-care is an extremely important part of stress management and finding ways for clients to implement self-care into their routine will be very helpful in managing overall stress while coping mechanisms can be helpful to combat stress in the moment. Examples of this may be exercise, deep breathing techniques, listening to music, or finding activities that you enjoy and making them a priority in their daily life.”

There are many healthy ways to relieve stress. Multiple methods can also be used together! This can help people relieve stress that affects them at different levels, like physically and emotionally. 

When deciding how to manage stress, it is important to make sure your method is healthy and will work long-term. For example, eating comfort food may help someone feel better in the short term. But if eating comfort food becomes a primary method for dealing with stress, their health can be affected. This may result in another potential stressor, poor physical health. 

Talking to a therapist about stress can also be a key part of addressing and reducing it in the long-term. After getting to know you, a therapist may recommend healthy strategies for dealing with stress. They might personalize these to best suit your needs.

Over 75% of people in the United States report having physical symptoms of stress, according to a 2014 study. These symptoms included tiredness, tension, headaches, and upset stomach. On top of this, 43% said they eat unhealthy food or eat too much when stressed. Both of these habits can lead to serious health problems. A therapist or counselor can help you learn to manage stress in ways that improve, not reduce, your health and longevity. 

Counseling for Stress Management

When stress leads to drug abuse, chronic illness or pain, lack of pleasure or relaxation, or otherwise negatively affects well-being, meeting with a mental health professional or medical doctor can help. Health care professionals can work with you to treat your stress symptoms and work through the issues causing it.

Therapy can help address stress that occurs as a result of life events. When a person is stressed due to loss, divorce, or a life-altering medical diagnosis, therapy can help address these concerns and other effects they can have on a person’s life. When workplace issues lead to stress, for example, a therapist may help a person explore ways to deal with those issues. If an individual is stressed because of a family or relationship issue, couples or family therapy may help them resolve the issue. This can reduce stress for everyone involved.

Types of Therapy to Relieve Stress

Therapists and counselors use many types of treatment to help people cope with stress in healthy ways. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often an effective form of therapy for stress. CBT can help change negative thought patterns that develop because of stress. It is often used to help people find new ways of thinking about events that cause stress. These new ways of thinking can help reduce the impact of the stressor.

Other types of therapy that can help with stress are often mindfulness-based. This means they promote mindfulness as a method for reducing stress. Many types of therapy incorporate mindfulness. A few of these include mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). 

Stress can also come from other mental health conditions like anxiety, PTSD, or addictions. These conditions are also treatable with therapy. A therapist can help you understand your overall mental health. Based on what they find, they can recommend the best treatment plan for your situation. 

Talk with your therapist about any personal stressors and symptoms. Your therapist can then find the best counseling strategies for you.

Tips for Managing Stress 

Therapists may also give advice on strategies you can use to manage or relieve stress on your own. Stress affects the body, mind, and emotions. It follows that effective stress reduction targets stress as it occurs in the body, mind, and emotions. Below are some tips for reducing stress in each of these areas:

Body:

  • Deep breathing
  • A hot bath
  • Exercise, such as running, dancing, swimming, or yoga
  • Massage or acupuncture 
  • Taking a nap
  • Spending time with a pet
  • Taking a nature walk
  • Listening to soothing music
  • Aromatherapy 

Mind:

  • Reality testing negative thoughts and catastrophic thinking
  • Planning and keeping organized
  • Focusing on positive life events
  • Meditating
  • Using positive self-talk or affirmations

Emotions:

  • Laughing or crying
  • Expressing stressful emotions through art or writing
  • Talking stressful events over with someone you trust
  • Engaging in a hobby, such as cooking, crafting, or gardening

Self-help books and seminars that teach coping methods or ways to reduce stress may also be effective for some people.

Managing Stress in Therapy: Case Examples

  • Stress from perfectionism: Ben, 47, recently experienced a minor heart attack. His doctor told him to reduce his stress levels. Ben runs his own business with a budget of over ten million dollars.  Although a good deal of his income goes to support his large family, the maintenance of two homes, and some old debts, he has no financial needs. Ben reports feeling angry and emotionally distanced from his family, though he knows they love him. In therapy, Ben discusses his drive to achieve and readily accepts that he is something of a perfectionist. He also uncovers an intense anxiety about letting down his father, whose own business acumen caused Ben to feel he would have had to “conquer the world” to please him. For the short term, the therapist teaches Ben meditation techniques and encourages him to explore other methods of relaxation, such as a sport or hobby, on his own. Over the next two months, the therapist helps Ben come to terms with his father’s disappointment. After several sessions, Ben begins to notice a decrease in the amount of stress he experiences. He feels more relaxed and open around his family, even after working long days. They begin to set aside more time to enjoy leisure activities together.
  • Stress from insecure future: Sonia, 24, feels overworked. She has little money. What she has, she spends on alcohol, drinking every night after work to relax enough to sleep. However, she is often still too stressed to sleep. She ends up going to the gym and running to the point of exhaustion, often in the middle of the night. Sometimes she collapses at work, which increases her level of stress and causes her to fall further behind. She is not happy and cannot fathom what her future will be. In therapy, she reveals a serious coffee habit (measured in pots, not cups, per day). She also discusses her general unhappiness with her job and her life. In response to the therapist’s questions, she reports she obtained a bachelor’s degree in fine art and that she was considered to be a talented painter by her professors, but that she failed to make money or find a job in her field after graduating and therefore gave up on art. She considers the therapist’s suggestion that not pursuing her goals or using her talents may have contributed to the significant stress she is under. Sonia agrees the suggestion may have some merit. The therapist demonstrates some relaxation techniques, including deep breathing and positive imagery, and helps Sonia articulate short and long term goals. They then begin together to identify the steps required to achieve these goals. Sonia decides to abstain from alcohol and reduce her caffeine intake. She is able to rearrange her work schedule to allow her to begin taking masters level art classes. She begins to paint again, which helps reduce her stress significantly.

References:

  1. Blinder, D. (2009, August 20). 5 ways that spending time with animals helps your health. Retrieved from http://www.rodalenews.com/stress-relief-and-animals
  2. Stress a major health problem in the U.S., warns APA. (2007, October 24). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2007/10/stress.aspx 
  3. Stress management. (2013, July 9). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987?pg=1
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