Stress refers to the mental or emotional strain arising from challenging circumstances or pressures. When we are stressed, we find it more difficult to cope.
Everyone regularly experiences stress and some stress is unavoidable. Even positive events (getting married, planning holidays, getting a job promotion, etc) can be stressful. This is doubly so for negative external stressors such as illness, the death of a loved one, a relationship breakup, financial difficulties, or a myriad of other such situations.
Everyday hassles, too, can be stressful. Speeding home to get the dinner on the table, trying to calm down an upset child, rushing to meet workplace deadlines, dealing with a demanding colleague, getting that college essay in on time whilst keeping up to speed with other subjects as the exam date looms – all kinds of situations can be stressful and wearying.
Stress affects us emotionally, physically and behaviourally.
We have already touched on some of the causes, whether they be persistent everyday difficulties or major negative life events.
External forces are not the only drivers of stress, however. Stress can often be self-generated – that is, we unintentionally bring it on ourselves. This may be by worrying about events that will probably never happen, generating conflict with friends and family because of unrealistic demands or unhelpful thinking patterns, taking too much on because we find it difficult to say no to people, or countless other examples.
Self-generated stress arises from the way we think (for example, being too self-critical, excessive worry, having unrealistic expectations, taking things too personally) and behave (being avoidant, taking on too much, being perfectionist, tolerating unacceptable situations due to low self-esteem, etc).
Sometimes, stress can be initially triggered by external factors but maintained by one’s lifestyle choices. For example, alcohol can provide temporary relief from stress but it end up becoming a problem in itself, independent of the initial stressor.
Although everyone experiences stress, some people cope more effectively or are quicker to recover from stressful situations than others.
Unsurprisingly, stress can negatively impact your mental and physical health.
Poor stress management has been linked to physical health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other illnesses. Research has found that how people react to stress is a predictor of their health 10 years’ later (that is, people who find it more difficult to move on from their daily stressors are more likely to suffer physical health problems in the future).
The link between stress and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders is well-established. Stressful life events can trigger depression in vulnerable people. Research indicates that while stressful life events can often be unfortunate random events, they can sometimes be self-generated, with vulnerable people putting themselves in difficult situations that result in stress and depression.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a practical, evidence-based stress management approach. Stress cannot be avoided in life but CBT will help you to minimise or manage it.
Essentially, stress can be managed by either:
CBT helps you to identify and change unhelpful thinking styles that worsen your experience of stress. CBT also helps you to develop positive coping behaviours that work for you and that boost your confidence in your ability to cope. These cognitive and behavioural strategies can be supplemented by other techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness exercises. Therapy will focus on developing an individualised programme that works for you.
In my work with the mental health charity, Aware, I deliver the Life Skills Group programme. This programme aims to help people deal with life’s stressors by learning and applying the key principles of CBT. I also design and facilitate night classes on Stress Control using CBT. We all need to watch our stress levels and to effectively manage the challenges that come our way. I am passionate about the value of CBT in this regard.