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April 14th, 2021

How does therapy treat stress?

By Dan Whale

  • Stress
  • Therapy

We’re now halfway through the UK Stress Awareness Month - a month in which we are encouraged to reflect on our experience of stress, the areas of our lives where it is most notable and how we can best manage it.

There’s a lot of information available on steps you can take for effective stress management - things like regular exercise, practising mindfulness and deep breathing. These tips can be really useful for tackling sudden onsets of stress and reducing stress levels in general.

However, we’re going to focus on something slightly different. Whilst the aforementioned tips will be all some people need to get their stress to a more tolerable level, others may require a little extra help. Psychological therapy is often prescribed for stress, and as an online therapy clinic, we thought we could take you through exactly what that might look like.

There are different therapeutic approaches that can be used to treat stress and you can discuss these with a therapist and be involved in choosing the path you want to take. Below are a selection of the most common approaches, as explained by a clinical psychologist that specialises in treating stress.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT aims to help you identify unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving, and to learn skills and strategies for how to challenge and modify these as best as you can. This approach is particularly relevant to stress as you discover what you find most triggering and reflect on how a change in behaviour in certain situations could have eased your symptoms.

Your therapist is likely to talk to you about when you feel most stressed, what that experience feels like and how you behave before, during and after that experience. You may well be asked to complete some tasks between sessions, noting down what has made you feel stressed on a daily basis and performing regular mental exercises to help you handle difficult situations in a healthier way.

Whilst described as a ‘talking therapy’, CBT shouldn’t just be seen as a way to unload. Ultimately, changing the way in which we instinctively think and act is hard work. It’s something that takes practice and time, but it is possible, and your therapist is there to help you every step along the way.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

Put most simply, mindfulness is about training your attention to what is happening (in terms of your thoughts, sensations and emotions) in a precise moment in time. It has roots in meditation and many of the exercises you will learn are meditation-based.

As the name suggests, MBSR is particularly effective for treating stress and usually follows an 8 week format. Your therapist will help you learn new skills in dealing with what happens to our mind and body when stressful situations occur.

Whilst MBSR may include a certain amount of meditation - an ancient practice - it is still an evidence-based approach. It was developed in the 1970s and has been proven to be a very effective way to treat stress.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT is another commonly used therapeutic approach for treating stress. ACT teaches us that unwanted or unpleasant experiences are an inevitable part of life, and trying to fight against them is counter-productive.

Working with a therapist you can develop skills that allow you to accept stress and change the way you react to internal experiences. More on ACT and how it works can be found here.

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)

CFT teaches us that humans have three main emotion regulation systems: a threat and self-protection system (used to escape ‘dangerous’ situations), a drive and excitement system (that makes us go after what brings us joy and pleasure), and a soothing and social security system (our state of relaxation).

If you’re experiencing stress, there may be an imbalance between these systems - with the soothing and social security system not being nurtured enough. This may have happened in earlier life or could be a more recent development, but CFT aims to correct this imbalance so that you can accept criticisms, failures anf fears without them having too much of an impact on your life.

Your therapist is likely to give you ‘homework’ so you can practice replacing feelings of shame and hostility towards yourself, which make you feel stressed, with compassion and understanding.

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There are many different ways in which stress can be treated, so even if you’ve tried therapy before, it’s worth exploring again if you didn’t get the outcomes you were hoping for. What’s most important to remember is that no matter your job or personal circumstances, no one deserves, or should be expected to live, a stress-filled life. Treatments are out there and if stress is negatively impacting your life, there’s no harm in giving them a go.

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