Therapist

Should you go to therapy for stress

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Stress is a normal part of life — good stress and bad stress. With bad stress, you have both physical and emotional reactions to certain triggers that can cause you to worry and feel on edge. Stress can fluctuate at work or at home, while challenging situations and other changes in your life can trigger it, too.

If you’re curious about how you can manage stress through therapy, read on to learn more about what types of therapy and therapists can help.

What therapies work for stress?

While stress itself is a normal part of life, recurring stress that interferes with your daily activities and overall well-being is not. Stress can manifest itself in different ways, including excessive worrying, inability to sleep at night, and body aches.

Stress can take its toll, but therapy can help you manage it better. Some types of therapy may even equip you with strategies to cope with future stress. Below are the most commonly used therapies for stress and related mental health conditions.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for short-term help

CBT is perhaps one of the most common types of therapy available, as it addresses your thought patterns and behaviors. Your therapist will help you identify your stressors, and help you come up with healthier responses to reduce the impact of your triggers.

CBT may be used on either a short-term or long-term basis. This can make it suitable for helping to treat chronic mental health conditions, as well as helping you get through traumatic events and other causes of acute stress.

You may benefit from CBT if you’re concerned about:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • sleep disorders, such as insomnia
  • phobias
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Psychodynamic therapy

Like CBT, psychodynamic therapy aims to help you identify thought patterns that may dictate behavioral responses. Psychodynamic therapy, however, is used on a more long-term basis. It may be best suited for stress caused by long-standing issues that you have been dealing with, which are intertwined with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

Behavioral therapy

Behavioral therapy is similar to CBT with its focus on changes in behavior. But unlike CBT, behavioral therapy is more focused on your actions, rather than your thoughts.

According to this type of therapy, your actions are dictated by previous behaviors. By changing your behavioral responses to stress now, you can create new patterns and possibly avoid further stress.

Behavioral therapy tends to work best for long-term triggers of stress, including traumatic events, as well as conditions such as anxiety, phobias, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a technique traditionally used to treat phobias, PTSD, and anxiety disorders. You might benefit from this type of therapy if you have a mental health condition that causes you to avoid certain situations, objects, people, and places.

This type of therapy may also help address chronic stress if you practice avoidance in an effort to avoid more stress. Unfortunately, such avoidance can make stress and anxiety-related disorders worse by making you feel even more uneasy.

Exposure therapy works by allowing your therapist to help gradually expose you to the triggers that you intentionally avoid. The idea is that, over time, you will become accustomed to these fears and become less stressed about them.

Group therapy

In some cases, group therapy may be an option if you’re dealing with an extremely stressful event. Examples include a natural disaster, child loss, divorce, and more. A trained therapist leads sessions, and you may find the group setting allows you to feel empowered and less alone.

What kind of therapist is best for stress?

Trained psychologists or a psychotherapists are generally the best type of mental health professionals for stress-related therapies. Their mission is to help you identify triggers of stress while collaboratively developing a plan with you to manage them. Psychotherapists are also referred to as “talk therapists.”

When looking for a therapist, you can ask a prospective professional what modalities they specialize in. For example, many talk therapists use CBT, while others might specialize in psychodynamic therapy. Also, some psychotherapists specialize in stress and related mental health conditions such as anxiety.

While psychologists and psychotherapists tend to be the most helpful in assisting their clients with behavioral changes in response to stress, some situations may warrant other types of mental health professionals who also use talk therapy techniques. These include:

  • Psychiatrists, who can also administer mental health medications and have medical training
  • Group counselor, who specializes in working with a small group of people with similar struggles
  • Play therapists for younger children
  • School counselors, who may address stress in school-aged children, as well as college students

No matter which professional you seek stress therapies from, be sure that they are licensed in your state and have the relevant education and experience to help you.

How to get help 

If you feel that stress is starting to interfere with your daily activities, it’s time to reach out for help. The American Psychological Association is a good place to start your online search. Check out their free psychologist locator to find therapists in your state. You can also ask your family doctor for recommendations.

While many insurance companies cover mental health services, it’s important to check with your provider regarding in-network therapists. You’ll also want to check out information regarding co-payments and other fees.

There are affordable therapy options no matter your insurance coverage and budget.

Some therapists don’t take medical insurance due to privacy concerns. You may check to see if they offer sliding scale fees to help off-set your costs. Local clinics, blogs, therapy apps, and virtual sessions may also be less expensive.

It’s important to schedule an initial consultation to gauge your comfort level with your therapist. You may find that it takes a few different therapists until you’ve found the right fit.

What else helps with stress?

Aside from therapy, there are other steps you can take to reduce stress in your everyday life right now. You can start with the following:

  • Exercise regularly. Research shows that even walking for 30 minutes each day can decrease stress and boost your overall mood.
  • Schedule regular relaxation intervals. Do something that relaxes you for at least several minutes a day. Just some ideas include taking a warm bath, gentle yoga stretches, deep breathing exercises, or reading a book.
  • Prevent social isolation. While seeing friends and family for in-person activities can help, even making phone calls or talking virtually can keep you socially connected and reduce your stress.
  • Reassess your priorities. Focus on daily tasks without worrying too much over what you can’t get done. Also, say “no” to unnecessary tasks, and delegate extra work when you start to feel overwhelmed.

The above techniques can work for both chronic and acute forms of stress, and they can complement any therapies you decide to try. If you’re struggling with ongoing stress, see a mental health professional for advice.

The takeaway

Occasional stress isn’t necessarily a cause for concern if you are able to manage it on your own. But if stress interferes with your life on a regular basis and you’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be time to seek help.

Left untreated, ongoing (chronic) stress may contribute to (or worsen) certain mental health conditions, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.

Unmanaged stress can also have other consequences to your health. These may include digestive ailments, high blood pressure (hypertension), and sleep disorders. Long-term stress is also linked to metabolic disorders.

Therapy can be an invaluable tool for stress, whether you’re going through an unusually tough time or if you’ve been struggling with chronic stress. It can even address stress related to mental health conditions or chronic illnesses.

“You need therapy.”

This is a phrase used far too often as an insult, a punishment, or even a bad joke. We say it to the partner we are mad at (or dumping), to the politician or anonymous person on Twitter we disagree with, or to the friend we feel is in the wrong yet doesn’t understand why.

As a psychiatrist, I cringe when I hear therapy discussed like this. Not only is this the wrong way to think about when we should be going to therapy, but it’s also a deeply stigmatizing view. Instead, we should be thinking of therapy’s many potential benefits to, well, really any of our lives.

Because we so often talk like this, I’ve noticed that many people don’t actually know the various reasons you might consider going to therapy in the first place. They may be skeptical of it, see it as self-indulgent, or not think they need it at all because they have loved ones to talk to or believe it’s reserved for only extreme circumstances.

To help clear up these misconceptions, I asked therapists what signs they think about when they recommend therapy to people and why. Here are 13 very good reasons you might consider going to therapy—none of which are an indictment of you as a person.

1. You’re having trouble processing something in your life.

Have you ever felt like you can’t quite articulate what you’re feeling or struggling with? Chase T. M. Anderson, M.D., M.S., child and adolescent fellow in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry, says one of his first cues someone might benefit from therapy is that they continue to say, “I wish I had the words for this,” or “I need to talk this out more.” Therapy can help with both. It does this by being a place for a patient to work through feelings, thoughts, and challenging situations, according to Marcia McCabe, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine. In doing so, “sometimes something truly valuable comes from this process—becoming a more aware and better version of ourselves,” Dr. McCabe tells SELF.

Brit Barkholtz, MSW, LICSW, a clinical therapist in St. Paul, agrees, adding, “Therapy can be a mirror to hold up to help you see yourself a little more accurately through the eyes of someone trained to see you comprehensively.” This can be particularly helpful for breaking through our limited, tunnel-vision perspective of who we are and what we’re going through.

2. You seem to have a shorter fuse than usual, and it’s affecting your mood, relationships, or other areas of your life.

Are you more easily annoyed with your friends or family over the “little things”? Are you becoming more enraged by your inbox with every passing day? Paying attention to how you’re reacting to everyday stressors—and how that’s changed over time—can be helpful when considering whether therapy might be right for you, explains Maia Wise, LICSW, founder of Wise Therapeutic Solutions LLC in Washington, D.C.

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