Help; I’m stressed! Why therapy is the best intervention.
In a world that seems to spin faster than a squirrel on a caffeine rush, it's no wonder we often find ourselves on the edge of a stress-induced collapse. From juggling work deadlines to unravelling the complexities of personal relationships, it's like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube with one hand tied behind your back.
It makes sense that you may feel like you are trapped in a never-ending maze of stress. Don't fret! I’m here to be your trusty GPS, guiding you through the winding roads of overwhelm and pointing you towards getting the support you need.
What is stress?
Stress can be defined as a physiological and psychological response to external pressures, demands, or challenges. It is the body's way of reacting to a perceived threat or an overwhelming situation. When faced with stress, the body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, triggering the fight-or-flight response. At points, it can be pretty helpful in certain situations and serves as a motivator or catalyst for action. And it can sharpen your senses. For instance, if you're crossing a road and a car comes out of nowhere, the adrenaline creates speed and agility, saving you from an accident. Or, when faced with an unhelpful child who suddenly tells you at 8 pm on a Sunday that they must build a spaceship for science class on Monday morning! That type of pressure and urgency can stimulate innovative thinking and help generate solutions, like a last-minute rummage through the recycling bin for anything that could be used to build some wings and a rocket launcher.
What I mean to say, is that often a stress reaction is 'appropriate' to the situation. We respond helpfully, in getting us closer to problem-solving or getting us into action.
When is stress not helpful?
Our threat responses are evolutionary in that our reaction to threat has for millions of years helped us stay alive from being hit by a car and getting us through dreaded homework! However, too much of something is never good ... frequent, intense, overactive, or inappropriate stress is often a sign of something more concerning. Stress is not helpful when it becomes chronic, overwhelming, and leads to burnout. It damages cognitive functioning, affects physical health, and increases the risk of mental health disorders. When stress becomes too much to handle, it can hinder productivity, strain relationships, and negatively impact overall well-being. This stress is entirely unhelpful and should be managed through therapy and stress-reducing techniques.
How stress often arrives in my therapy session.
Imagine a mysterious figure, dark cloak, tinted sunglasses, speaking in tongues... well, that's how stress arrives, in human form, in my therapy room. Stress is often mysterious, ambivalent, and in disguise, masking the real issues - sometimes out of confusion, other times for safety. When a client comes to see me at my practice about 'stress', it is often a term that encompasses and hides a mixture of issues; a broad description of things that are causing them stress. Or perhaps these things aren't even 'stress', but it's the only word they can find to describe the pain they are in. The difficulty is, stress is a word used too often to describe other emotions or concerns.
Stress, in my clinical experience, can mean a whole lot of different problems, e.g. the person is actually anxious about judgment from their boss as their appraisal is around the corner, angry at their mum who recently told them they need to be a better parent to their child, or hurt by a comment from a friend about their weight. I'm simplifying for ease of course. Stress is often the signifying symptom of deeper issues - unhealthy beliefs and complex problems. And when this is the case, therapy can be one of the most beneficial things in easing the pain and learning more about yourself and how to cope.
This is why, within cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), we often deal with stress as a symptom of the underlying problems - that say anxiety, depression, trauma, and low self-esteem can create.
Why therapy is vital in stress management
A small bit of science, so bear with me. Our brain perceives the stress: a huge wolf running at you or your boss calling you urgently on video call (equally as scary to be honest) and sends signals to the hypothalamus (an area in our brain) which activates the body's stress response. The hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, into the bloodstream. These hormones trigger a cascade of physical changes, like increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and heightened alertness. At the same time, our cognitive and emotional processes come into play as we evaluate the situation; we experience stress-related thoughts and emotions and engage in coping strategies to manage the stress.
Therapy cannot stop the stress response as that's a natural, biological function of our body - to feel stressed at a wolf running towards you or your boss giving you tons more work. However, therapy can teach you to control your thoughts and beliefs so that the stress is rationalised and managed e.g. "I am stressed that I have tons more work but let me look at my diary and manage this work, or learn assertiveness techniques through therapy, and implement some healthy boundaries with my boss so they stop giving me so much work". That's your intervention opportunity, right there, to engage with the cognitive and behavioural techniques that reduce the levels of stress, so that it doesn't become chronic or so overwhelming.
If you are stressed and need help!
A helpful mechanism for stress is understanding the function of the fight/ flight response to give you insight into how your body perceives and reacts to threats. If you find your stress is in fact constant (there most of the time), overactive (feeling stressed at things that maybe you wouldn’t have been stressed out before), and inappropriate (the stress response doesn’t warrant the situation, e.g. someone asking you to pass them the salt or a friend rings you for a catch up) then I would seek therapy to uncover why. If you feel some stress because it's now 9 pm and you’re still building a rocket for your child’s homework tomorrow, fair, but if it's now 4 am and you’re still awake worrying about if its good enough for your seven-year-old's teacher, then perhaps it’s time to talk to someone.
You want to be able to work towards equipping yourself with coping mechanisms, for your stress, but you will be unable to do so effectively, or in any long-lasting way before you have identified what the ‘stress’ is and what is triggering you to ‘be stressed’.