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Stress – what is it and how can therapy help?

April 2024

April is stress awareness month and here I will explore what stress is; how it manifests physically and psychologically and how therapy can help ease the burden in the body and mind.  In a recent survey the main reasons given for stress was – money (39%), not enough sleep (39%), health (35%), family (31%) and the news (24%) (Kind Mind, 2024).  In the same survey, a huge 66% of 18-24year olds are suffering from severe forms of stress. What is stress and how can therapy help?


What is stress?

Stress is a reaction we feel in our body and mind to a perceived threat.  Biologically, our cortisol levels rise – the threat feels very real. It is often marked by a range of physical reactions, we might feel a raising pulse rate, shallow breathing or a feeling of panic.  We have gone into survival mode (we may want to fight, flee or fawn at this threat).  A little bit of stress can be beneficial, it can motivate us to beat our best – e.g. for a test or exam - stress can focus our mind.  However, stress is not helpful when it is experienced as overwhelming or insurmountable.  Stress can lead to a worsening of an individual’s mental health condition – e.g. anxiety or depression – if not treated.  Stress is real and for some people it can be debilitating.


How do I know if I am stressed?

Stress can reveal itself in different ways for the individual (see the Mind link below) but if you are feeling unusually overwhelmed, angry, afraid or low – you maybe experiencing a stressful episode.  If you feel isolated, unmotivated, a lack of joy or flatness - stress could be the cause. The body will react to the stress and cope for a short time, but if it is left unresolved it can lead to a worsening of your mental health, possibly thoughts of harm to self or in extreme cases suicidal thoughts may occur.  At this stage you should seek medical advice from a GP.  Many clients who come to therapy are at this stage of crisis - the stress has overtaken - and our work may start with stabilisation until the client is ready to explore.  When the stress lessens, led by the client, we can then talk about what may be at the root of their stress.  Eventually, the client becomes stronger, they learn how to affect change on their lives to lessen the burden stress causes.


How can therapy help?

When clients bring these feelings of stress into therapy I believe the biggest catalyst for change is to be heard – to share these thoughts and feelings.  The therapist, in a non-judgemental way, listens and validates the client.  Consequentially, the client experiences an unburdening of stress.  In addition, within the therapeutic relationship, the client may reveal ideas around why they may feel stressed which can be explored.  If asked, the therapist may offer ideas of activities which may lessen the stress the client is experiencing.    Alongside therapy, these ideas could be mindfulness, yoga, breathing practises or massage – every individual is different and it’s important to recognise this difference as the approach for how therapy can help will be worked through in the relationship.


 If this resonates with you, be assured you are not alone.  This feeling of stress is prevalent in the World we live in, and we are experiencing it not only as individuals, but as communities and within the wider World.  At a micro-level however, we can affect the change we need to resolve or lessening the stress within the therapy room.



Further reading:


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