Dealing with Stress – in Therapy and Beyond

STRESS AFFECTS EVERYONE

What is your relationship with stress?

Do you welcome some stress in your life? Do you find it sharpens your senses, motivates you, helps you focus on what needs doing and helps get it done?

Or do you, like many of us, find it debilitating and unhealthy or even destructive and overwhelming?

If asked “When did you last feel stressed?” most of us would not have to think for very long.

  • This morning while driving to work?
  • Struggling to get the kids to school on time?
  • Dealing with an unpleasant neighbour?
  • Or just finding it difficult to fit all your chores into your increasingly hectic day?

If asked about your reaction to feeling stressed, what would your answer be?

  • Did you overcome the situation and carry on, feeling grateful for your strength and patience?
  • Did you lose control and behave in a way that left you feeling guilty?
  • Did you feel squashed and exhausted by the experience?
  • Are you so used to being stressed that you did not even notice any difference?

A HEALTHY RESPONSE

As stress is an integral part of life, and found in nearly all the problems we face, it is something I often prioritise with my clients.

In therapy we look at how to maintain a healthy attitude to stress and how to self-regulate effectively. This enables us to face stress in the most effective way, coping with its negative side-effects and even finding ways to use it to our advantage.

WHAT IS STRESS? A SIMPLE DEFINITION

The term “stress” is short for “distress,” a word evolved from Latin that means “to draw or pull apart.”

Stress is our protective response to an event that makes us feel threatened or upsets our balance in some way.

A stress response involves complex changes in our metabolism that prepare us for a quick reaction to the situation, commonly known as the Fight-or-Flight Response.

Stress hormones are released, more oxygen-rich blood moves to the brain and muscles. There’s a fast release of glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream. The muscles tense in preparation for action.

All this results in increased breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, keener senses, sharper focus and reduced sensitivity to pain.

Other hormones shut down functions unnecessary for the situation such as the reproductive, digestive and immune systems. In other words, the fight-or-flight response is the body going into “metabolic overdrive” to respond to threatening situations, while unnecessary functions are switched off.

HEALTHY STRESS

A certain amount of stress, such as that induced by meeting a deadline at work, having to learn something new or speaking in public, can have beneficial effects.

Some positive outcomes of healthy stress response include:

  • building new neural pathways in the brain to enable us to manage a wider range of situations,
  • expanding memory,
  • enhancing creative thinking.

An athlete is stressed before the start of a race but the flight-or-fight response helps them to prepare and boosts the potential for performing well.

CHRONIC AND/OR UNHEALTHY STRESS

People dealing with problems, can suffer unhealthy stress because they lack the time, space or skills to manage their stress.

Some people suffer because they are dealing with “imagined” threats and as such the resources produced by the fight-or-flight response are not needed and merely exacerbate the problems.

The negative effects of unhealthy stress occur in four areas:

  • Physical
  • Cognitive
  • Emotional
  • Relational

POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF CHRONIC (LONG-TERM) STRESS

In the contemporary world, we are often faced with multiple stresses, one after the other, or experience chronic stress that goes on for weeks or years.

This means that levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol can be raised for prolonged periods of time.

This can dampen the immune system, reduce memory, and lead to sexual dysfunctions, digestive problems, skin ailments, etc. It also can affect blood pressure, and the fats in the blood, making heart attacks and strokes more likely.

Common effects can include: headaches, feeling sick, sore muscles, diarrhoea or constipation, indigestion, heart beating faster, skin rash, tiredness, being unable to concentrate, problems with sleeping, wanting to binge on comfort foods, sadness, aggression and anger, tension, hopelessness, nervousness, anxiety, losing interest in sex.

In some clients stress can be a part of, or a source of, various anxieties, manifested in panic attacks, chronic sleep disturbances, overwhelming negative thoughts, compulsive behaviours, obsessions, irritability, poor concentration, hyper-vigilance, exaggerated startle response, motor restlessness, etc.

WHAT WE DO IN THERAPY

How we deal with stress is affected by:

  • Our ability to stay in control or regulate “in the moment”
  • Our lifestyle, routine, physical and mental habits
  • Our attitude to stress
  • Our environment

Self-regulation: In therapy I initially work with you on your response to stressful experiences and how we can reduce the impact such experiences have on you.

I offer you bespoke techniques for self-regulating in the moment, allowing you to deal successfully with stressful experiences. A fresh approach: This will usually mean taking a fresh look at how you are thinking about your problems – about your emotional and physical response to difficulties – and how you interact with others and your environment.

Psycho-education: We look at psycho-education around stress, which supports you to adjust your lifestyle to minimise the negative impact from stress, and helps you become stronger and more resilient. This may focus on areas such as sleep hygiene, use of alcohol and caffeine, exercise, quiet time and meditation, etc.

Coping with stress: Once you learn to self-regulate healthily you can look more objectively at stressful situations, reflecting on your experiences and pacing your response to allow for full restoration, rather than be overwhelmed by each situation.

Moving forward: Once you have that grounding, any past or present issues that initially brought you to therapy can be addressed from a different level/perspective. You will develop the space and freedom of mind to make more sensible decisions, to find a way out of situations that seemed hopeless, to feel more resilient and inspired to move forward and discover new potential in your life.

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