Stress is normal and can have both positive or negative effects, and understanding the differences in how they both impact you will be important in helping you learn how to manage it. Stress can be triggered by a number of things happening in your life, such as a change in career or becoming a new parent. As a result, these can often trigger additional stressors.
Moderate levels of stress aren’t harmful to people, and certain kinds of stress can even be motivating and positive. When stress is too intense, chronic, or lasting, it can cause negative impacts to a person’s physical and mental health. Sometimes stress occurs in response to a specific external event, circumstance or situation and other times it is caused internally by mental habits like worrying, ruminating, or self-criticizing.
When to Get Professional Help for Stress
It’s important to understand what your baseline level of stress is and also how well you cope with stress. Sometimes, getting feedback from others who know you well might also provide insight, as it can be hard to see ourselves objectively.
When you start to feel tense muscles, physical pain, headaches or changes in your libido, these are some of the common physical symptoms of stress. Changes in behaviors such as eating habits, alcohol use and mood swings can also be red flags that you’re undergoing a lot of stress. Sleep issues, hyperarousal, anxiety and depression are also indicators of high stress.
If any of these stress-related issues becomes so extreme that they are interfering with your normal activities of daily living, such as going to work, seeing family or friends or attending routine social gatherings, it’s a sign you may need to seek out professional help. While experiencing stress in moderation isn’t harmful, stress that is intense, chronic, or debilitating can have lasting negative effects on both your physical and mental health.
How Can Therapy Help With Stress?
Therapy can help people with high stress develop more awareness about the causes and triggers for stress in their lives, which can sometimes help to identify solutions or lifestyle changes that can help reduce stress. In addition, therapy can help people learn effective and healthy methods of coping with stress, including specific relaxation skills to reduce stress and enjoyable activities that can help counteract it.
Common Types of Therapy Used for Stress Management
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most common types of therapy used for stress management. In CBT, the therapist helps you identify negative thought patterns which negatively impact your behaviors and emotions. By getting to the root of the thought, CBT empowers you to reshape your experience. CBT, when used consistently for two months, can help relieve feelings of stress and anxiety related to chronic illnesses.3
Additionally, CBT has shown to be effective for caregivers of those dealing with chronic illness as well, as evident in a 2018 study. In this study, caregivers were found to benefit from group stress therapy that lasted at least two months as the group setting was able to help all individuals in the group adhere to consistently attending group stress therapy.2 Another study on nursing students found similar benefits after 10 weeks of consistent CBT, with these students reporting feeling more competent, less stressed, and having higher self-esteem.5
Mindfulness skills and formal meditation also have powerful stress-relieving capabilities, and these skills are often integrated into therapy.4 Mindfulness and meditation help people learn to pull their attention away from unhelpful thoughts and to be more present. Certain types of therapy like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-based CBT, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy utilize mindfulness as a method of regulating emotions.
For those who can identify a specific situational cause for their stress, solution-focused techniques can also be helpful. Solution focused therapy is often provided in 6-8 sessions (or fewer) and focuses on helping people find solutions for specific problems and stressors they are experiencing. Those with stress related to a more chronic problem (like anxiety, depression, grief, or trauma) may benefit from longer-term therapy, but solution focused therapy can be helpful to those experiencing situational stress or difficulties adapting to a specific life change.
3 Examples of Therapy for Stress
Since stress can manifest differently, and different therapy types are useful for different situations, here are three examples of different techniques used for specific situations:
1. CBT for Work-Related Stress
A client who is getting CBT therapy for work-related stress would be introduced to the core concepts of CBT, which describe the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They would be asked to “self-monitor” these outside of sessions, possibly even using a tracking log or worksheet, using this exercise to help the client become more aware of the specific thoughts that feed into stress and cause negative reactions. The client may be taught specific skills to interrupt unhelpful thoughts like these when they arise in the future, replacing them with new, more helpful thoughts.
2. Brief Solution-Focused Therapy After College Graduation
A client who just graduated from college and is starting a new career might seek counseling for stress related to major life transitions. Their therapist might help them identify the specific problems and sources of stress in their lives right now, and help them find practical, helpful solutions to address these. The therapist might also help the client learn new, healthier methods of coping with stress. Generally, this type of therapy is short-term, ending in 6-8 sessions or less.
3. ACT for Non-Specific Stress & Anxiety
Sometimes clients do not know what is causing them stress and anxiety. If they are unable to identify a specific cause, the therapist is often still able to provide help by teaching them different ways of coping and responding to emotions. An ACT therapist would likely endorse emotional acceptance and mindfulness skills, encouraging the client to be open to experiencing anxiety and stress rather than avoiding them or trying to control them. By “dropping the struggle” with emotions, the client often notices that these difficult emotions become less intense and don’t last as long.
Is Therapy Effective for Treating Stress?
Stress counseling can be very effective in helping people reduce their stress, identify and address underlying issues, and learn better methods of coping. Given that stress can sometimes mask itself as high-functioning anxiety or depression, having a professional opinion is important in ruling out a more chronic cause.
Therapy provides a confidential space for people to express themselves, seek support, and identify changes they need to make to reduce stress. Stress therapy also helps people learn additional ways to manage stress on their own to supplement talk therapy.
How to Find a Stress Therapist
The best way to find a stress therapist is by searching an online directory and reviewing the providers based on your preferences and insurance. Researching clinician profiles online and selecting a few to contact for initial conversations is a good first step. Many therapists offer a free phone consultation and that can give families an opportunity to evaluate if that may be the right therapist for what they are looking for.
Another way to locate a therapist is by personal reference. If you are in a circle that openly and safely can discuss needing mental health resources, using a reference a friend has used for similar issues may be a good first step. Everyone is different so it shouldn’t be expected that one therapist would be the right one for everyone, but a good first step.
Requesting a referral from your physician for anyone they recommend is also an option. This also gives your physician an opportunity to collaborate with you and find you the right type of treatment. A holistic approach to any kind of therapy should also involve your physician or any specialists you are known to.
Copays and coverage of treatment will depend on if the provider you choose is in-network or out-of-network. It is not uncommon to have a copay even with an in-network provider however many providers are able to offer a sliding scale payment model should the copay be too costly. It is important to have all the facts so asking your provider about this before therapy is recommended.
What Kind of Therapist Can Help With Stress?
All licensed therapists are equipped to help people struggling with high levels of stress. All therapists hold a state license for counseling, psychology, mental health or social worker, and have a graduate degree in addition to some clinical training in counseling. LCSW, LSW, LPC, LMHC, MFT or PsyD are the most common types of mental health providers.
Having a strong therapeutic relationship with your therapist is more important than the specific type of therapy they provide. That said, certain types of therapy like CBT have more evidence to suggest they are effective, and stress arising from specific issues like trauma or grief should be treated by a counselor with specialized knowledge in this issue.5
Once you have found a therapist, together you will create a treatment plan and there you may learn about other types of therapy options, such as group therapy. Depending on the type of stress you are facing, marital or family therapy may also be recommended. It’s important to go in with an open mind and goal of addressing the stress and/or the underlying reason why you are feeling so much stress.
Other Ways to Manage Stress
In addition to seeking therapy, there are certain stress management activities, skills, and lifestyle changes that can help prevent the negative impacts on your physical and mental health.
Some of the ways you can reduce stress on your own include:4
- Yoga or tai chi
- Mindfulness practices
- Guided meditation
- Exercise and physical activity
- Getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night
- Eating a healthy nutrient-rich diet
- Staying connected with friends and family
- Joining support group
- Reading self-help books
- Finding a creative outlet
- Engaging in enjoyable activities
- Avoiding using drugs or alcohol to cope
- Keeping a structured routine
Final Thoughts on Therapy for Stress
Stress is a normal and natural response to difficult or upsetting circumstances and events. While avoiding stress altogether is not possible, there are things you can do to reduce stress and prevent it from having negative impacts on you. Therapy is helpful to many people who are looking for new, healthier ways of reducing stress, and also for those who need support while navigating a stressful life event or transition.
Therapy for Stress Infographics