How Integrative Counselling can help with Stress
Do you feel desperate, anxious, unreal, tearful, confused, overwhelmed, exhausted, short of breath? Is your sleep disrupted; are you having palpitations or frequent headaches; are you short tempered with loved ones? Are you getting ill more frequently?
Stress is a commonly used word that fails to fully express the serious impact it can have on quality of life, self-confidence, mental state, relationships and physical health. Modern life is often busy and challenging and the effects of stress can build so slowly that we don’t fully notice them gradually sapping our energy and health. Whether due to work, a caring role, a challenging life change such as losing a job, a difficult relationship, too many responsibilities or a stressful life event such as getting married, people often deny their own sense that something is wrong, saying that ‘everyone has pressures’ or that they ‘should be able to cope’. One of the biggest gains some people make from having counselling for stress is validation that their situation is challenging, often coupled with the realisation that they are not completely to blame. This in itself can bring relief.
Learning about the ‘fight or flight’ response and the causes of the physical symptoms of stress can be very helpful. Understanding the physiological reasons behind bowel problems, headaches, numbness and even chest pains when under a lot of pressure can be reassuring, and can help reduce worry and even prevent panic attacks. This also provides the basis for learning relaxation techniques and stress reduction strategies as you become more aware of your body's signals, and so more able to respond to them.
Good counselling provides a place of safety and calm outside the usual day to day pace of life; somewhere to look at your life from a different perspective. Strategies that can be learned to deal with stress are wide-ranging, depending on your individual situation, personality and style. Person centred and psychodynamic counselling provide the space to reflect on your own individual experiences, beliefs and choices - you may discover things about your position in the family that influence how you see your role, which can in turn lead to making changes that can assist coping or reduce stress. You can gain a better understanding of how your own particular experience was formed, putting the current stress into the context of your life as a whole and drawing on existing skills to cope or make changes. Acknowledging and expressing the contents of worries, anger, feelings of injustice or the beliefs that drive you that are often suppressed during stress can help you to begin to address them.
Many counsellors who work in these ways have undertaken additional training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT techniques can assist in identifying the negative patterns of thought and behaviour that tend to go along with stress, such as catastrophic thinking - “If I don’t get this done today it will be terrible” - and teach ways to change these to more balanced, helpful ones. It can also identify cycles of behaviour, symptom and thought that can sometimes keep us stuck in a situation, and help to break cycles of panic, providing new skills for dealing with stress.
Mindfulness is a way of being that teaches that, as we often spend much of our time thinking about the past or worrying about the future (especially when under stress), we can miss a lot that is occurring in the present. In stress, we often function in a rushed, breathless state, trying to do multiple things at once and forgetting where we have put things. This is a symptom of the mindlessness characteristic of stress. Learning strategies to be ‘in the moment’ can help you to centre yourself, to be more aware of what is happening and so make healthier choices. Some counsellors are able to introduce you to mindfulness and you may choose to explore further; others are fully trained to teach mindfulness courses.
Taking the time out of the chaos of life - where you never catch up with yourself and rarely have time for you - and making the commitment to see a counsellor is the first step in making the positive change that can lead to transformation in the quality of your life, mental and physical health. People who experience extreme stress often say that they feel uncomfortable, even guilty, talking about themselves; that they ‘should’ be spending time helping others instead. It's worth bearing in mind that, if you take care of your own needs, this can actually benefit loved ones and colleagues in the long term as you will remain well enough to take your part and choose to do the things that matter most.
Having counselling for stress can release anxiety and help you take back some control in your life, and many integrative counsellors combine approaches tailored to your needs, helping you to consider your situation from many angles. So, whether you know exactly what the problem is but don’t know what to do, or you are feeling confused and not sure what is happening to you, seeking out a counsellor who is experienced at working with stress related issues can be transformative.