Whether you experience it for a few moments or days, stress is something we all know well. Its control over your body can feel heavy, especially when given no outlet for release.
“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, PsyD.
To help stop the cycle of exhaustion, there’s therapy. Learn exactly how therapy can help you manage stress, what makes a therapist a good fit, ways stress can appear, and other ways to deal.
Types of therapy for managing stress
- Behavioral therapy. This therapy focuses on your actions and unlearning counterproductive behaviors.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A type of behavioral therapy focusing on managing thought patterns to better cope with stressors.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Created primarily for people with borderline personality disorder, DBT helps folks with acceptance and distress tolerance.
- Exposure therapy. Often used to treat phobias and anxiety conditions, this type of therapy can help you cope with stress triggers you tend to avoid.
- 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 a therapy called grounding, ecotherapy uses nature to help bring focus and calm to your mind.
- Talk therapy. The practice of talking about a concern to help clarify or gain perspective. Many types of therapy fall under this category.
- Group therapy. Many people, especially those with conditions that can feel isolating, can benefit from talk therapy in a group setting.
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 concerns 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 coping with a concern 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 concerns 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 techniques||How to practice||What to expect|
|journaling||List negative thoughts and reframe them through a positive lens.||change the way you view certain things and situations|
|grounding||Work on deep breathing, picturing peaceful imagery, and relaxing your muscles.||a release of tension and a greater sense of control|
|guided discovery||A therapist will ask you questions that challenge your negative beliefs.||see things from a different perspective|
|role-playing||Play out scenarios that cause you stress.||improve your familiarity and comfort in stressful situations|
|gradual exposure||Stay in a situation that causes stress instead of immediately leaving it.||may 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.
The first step in finding the right therapist for you is to determine if they’re licensed. “Nonlicensed 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, substance misuse, or any other concern.
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:
- Do you feel that you’re safe and cared for with your therapist?
- Do you feel that you have a rapport that allows you to be completely honest and not hide?
- 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 concerns 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:
- Be aware of your body’s symptoms of stress.
- Take a nap to reset.
- Avoid multitasking.
- Try meditation.
- Practice positive self-talk.
- Try getting some exercise.
- Delegate your work when you can.
- Practice self-care.
- Join a support group.
- Try stress worksheets.
- Create boundaries for your friends or work.
- Eat varied and nutrient-dense meals.
- Avoid social media or take internet breaks.
- Set intentional time to relax.
- Set goals for including mindfulness practice and other self-care into your routine.
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 widely. 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 concerns. When you’ve experienced stress for a long time, you might not even recognize it as stress. Stress may also show up as:
- a lack of appetite
- anxiety or depression
- daytime sleepiness
“Stress can also cause physical symptoms such as exhaustion, weight changes, a weakened immune system, muscular pain, and gastrointestinal distress,” says Weiler.
When stress seems to be getting the better of you and your mental health, asking for help is your best bet. Here are some ways to get the ball rolling.
- If you have health insurance, check with your provider about coverage details and any in-network professionals to contact.
- Check with your employer to see if they offer any mental wellness benefits.
- Ask your doctor for a referral.
- The American Psychological Association’s free psychologist locator can help you find a local professional.
- If the budget is tight, look into more budget-friendly ways to get help. Some therapists work on a sliding scale or offer free or reduced price services to folks with lower incomes.
- Look into online therapy options and therapy apps, which can sometimes also be a bit less expensive.
- Local support groups can also be helpful when one-on-one therapy isn’t an option or if you want supplemental help. Mental Health America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have resources to help you find a local support group.
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, talking with a therapist can help you find your footing as you take it day by day.