Whether you experience it for a few moments or days, stress is something we all know very well. Its control over your body can feel heavy, especially when given no outlet for release. At some point, it may even overwhelm your body.

“Fight or flight is great for handling short-term emergencies when your safety is in danger. But it’s not great for handling long-term stress that you can’t hide or run from, like unpaid bills, emotionally toxic people, or a pandemic,” says Aimee Daramus, Psy.D.

“Fight or flight takes a lot of energy. So, when you’re stressed for weeks or months, it’s exhausting for the rest of the body.”

To stop the cycle of exhaustion, there’s therapy. Learn exactly how therapy can help you manage stress, by getting to know:

  1. the benefits of managing stress with therapy
  2. how cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other expert techniques can help
  3. what makes the therapist a good fit
  4. alternative ways to manage stress, if therapy isn’t an option
  5. other ways stress secretly appears
  6. outlook of therapy for managing stress
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When a friend comes to you in distress, you might validate their feelings and help them in any way you can.

Yet, when you’re feeling stressed yourself, you might often minimize it and believe that what you’re feeling isn’t worth looking for the support. A therapist can help you validate your feelings as real and impactful, help you understand them, and work through them.

Having a therapist is like having an experienced guide to light your path.

“You’ve probably seen that it’s easier to make progress in work and school if you have a good mentor to show you the next steps,” says Daramus. “The therapist is the guide and mentor that can help you find the next steps and learn the skills.”

And the wonderful thing about therapy is that you don’t need a “serious” reason to visit or even a chronic one. Therapy is a great option whether you’re looking for a safe place to sort out your weekly feelings or dealing with something heavier such as grief or trauma.

A therapist can help you get to the root of your emotions, learn coping mechanisms, and work through what’s draining you.

“A skilled therapist should be able to listen to the client, help them identify root causes, identify patterns of thoughts or behaviors that contribute to the stress, and identify ways to make circumstances less stressful,” says Rebecca Weiler, LMHC.

A therapist can also help you identify what’s feeding your stress, whether it’s internal or external factors. For example, “You might be in a job where you think you’re doing a terrible job. But nothing you try seems to help you get better, so you accept blame for the situation,” says Daramus.

In this case, “A therapist might ask questions that will help you see that you’re being mistreated or that the expectations aren’t reasonable and need to be renegotiated,” she says.

As you work through your issues in therapy, “You learn to have a more balanced view: Here’s where I could be better, but here’s where someone else has some responsibility too,” says Daramus.

The balanced view above is one example of how “you can experiment with new ways of dealing with a problem while your therapist supports you emotionally and gives you feedback,” she says.

One of the options for working on your mental health is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of treatment focuses on identifying problems and creating clear solutions for them, often through practices.

Here are some techniques often associated with CBT and what kind of results you can expect:

CBT techniquesHow to practiceWhat to expect
Journaling List negative thoughts and reframe them through a positive lens.Change the way you view certain things and situations.
GroundingWork on deep breathing, picturing peaceful imagery, and relaxing your muscles.A release of tension and a greater sense of control.
Guided DiscoveryA therapist will ask you questions that challenge your negative beliefs. See things from a different perspective.
Role-PlayingPlay out scenarios that cause you stress.Improve your familiarity and comfort in stressful situations.
Gradual ExposureStay in a situation that causes stress instead of immediately leaving it.Gradual exposure can help create coping skills and lessen the control that situation has over your life.

CBT helps you think differently

“The cognitive part of CBT means learning how to think differently, more rationally and more soundly,” says Dr. Lea Lis, a board certified psychiatrist with a clinical practice in Southampton, New York.

“The behavioral piece is around learning specific techniques to control stress and anxiety, like meditative breathing, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, and other very healthy techniques for managing stress without medication.”

At its core, CBT stems from the idea that the way we think can be changed to provide a healthier mindset.

“CBT works to change the way we view the world, reducing our level of worry, and teaching us coping skills to reduce our level of stress.” says Lis. If you’re looking for an online option, digital CBT is also proven to benefit patients.

Other types of therapy for managing stress:

CBT is not the only option! You can also talk to a therapist about trying:

  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): Created primarily for people with borderline personality disorder, DBT helps folks with acceptance and distress tolerance.
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): This is an 8-week program that aims to enhance mindfulness with meditation for stress reduction.
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): An adaptation of MBSR, MBCT uses mindfulness and cognitive therapy to reduce negative thinking.
  • Ecotherapy: Similar to grounding, ecotherapy uses nature to help bring focus and calm to your mind.
  • Talk therapy: The practice of talking about a problem to help clarify or gain perspective.

The first step in finding the right therapist for you is to determine if they’re licensed. “Non-licensed people can be very good at their jobs, but there’s no real accountability if they do something unethical or damaging,” says Daramus.

Then, determine if they specialize in the aspects you’re looking to work on, whether your stress comes from relationships, family, addiction, or any other issue.

If you’re experiencing general stress or you’re not sure of the root cause, there are many generalist therapists as well. The next step is to ensure they take your insurance, so you don’t have to pay a tremendous amount out of pocket.

Once you’ve checked all those boxes and started meeting with a therapist, Lis recommends asking yourself these three questions:

  1. Do you feel that you’re safe and cared for with your therapist?
  2. Do you feel that you have a rapport that allows you to be completely honest and not hide?
  3. Are you sure they’re not judging you and do you feel that you can be open?

If you say yes to all the above, then you should be in good hands.

Mental health issues aren’t exclusive to people who can afford expert care. Even when you can’t find or visit a therapist, it’s critical to learn physical, emotional, and cognitive techniques to try and cope.

Here’s what therapists recommend doing on your own or with trusted friends and family members:

  1. Take a nap to reset.
  2. Avoid multitasking.
  3. Try meditation.
  4. Practice positive self-talk.
  5. Try getting exercise.
  6. Delegate your work.
  7. Practice self-care.
  8. Join a support group.
  9. Try stress worksheets.
  10. Create boundaries for your friends or work.
  11. Eat varied and balanced meals.
  12. Avoid social media or take internet breaks.
  13. Set intentional time to relax.

While these tips are different from going to therapy, they’re affordable ways to make progress with managing your stress.

Depending on where you live, the cost of therapy can range from accessibility to inaccessible. According to Northwestern Mutual, weekly therapy can add up to $3,200 per year, out of pocket. That’s about $60 a week, which could be the equivalent of forgoing groceries. This shouldn’t be a choice you have to make.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take to help progress your stress levels towards a healthier equilibrium. (Plus, there’s positive stress, and you don’t want to miss out on being able to recognize that!)

Therapy is an incredible tool for managing stress, along with related problems. When you’ve experienced stress for a long time, you might not even recognize it as stress. Stress may also show up as:

“Stress can also cause physical symptoms such as exhaustion, weight changes, a weakened immune system, muscular pain, and gastrointestinal distress,” says Weiler.

The first step towards overcoming stress is acknowledging that everything you’re feeling is legitimate, and that you’re far from alone in it.

“Stress is a normal part of life,” says Daramus. “There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling it, and a lot of people around you are feeling it too, even if you can’t see it. You’re not the weak one in a world of people who have it together.”

The next step is realizing that there are actionable steps you can take to feel better. This journey will look different for everyone depending on their experiences and mental health conditions.

But as long as you’re trying, there’s no wrong way to approach it. The rest is patience. Use the alternative tips mentioned above to manage stress and, if you’re able to, seeing a therapist can help you find your footing as you take it day by day.