Everybody gets stressed from time to time. It’s actually healthy to experience stress occasionally. Yet when you’re feeling excessively stressed, or you find that your stress levels are elevated for a prolonged period of time, there’s a significant associated risk of physical illness and adverse mental health outcomes.
Everyone’s familiar with the most common stress management techniques: meditate, practice yoga, and sleep well. But different types of stress require a targeted approach.
Many people use substances (smoking, caffeine, etc…) or distractions (TV, overeating, gambling, shopping) to try to deal with their stress levels. Contrary to popular belief, these activities may actually increase stress – and in excess, these behaviours are neither healthy nor sustainable.
So how do we manage stress effectively? There’s a strong body of research that supports the efficacy of stress management counselling that combines both problem-focused and emotion-focused stress management strategies.
Problem-focused stress management techniques aim to reduce the impact of environmental stressors. External causes of stress are targeted via practical stress management techniques such as time management, problem-solving, and if possible removing oneself from the circumstances that are creating the stress.
Emotion-focused stress management techniques target any feelings associated with stress, such as anxiety and anger. Emotion-focused coping techniques include breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation and progressive muscle relaxation.
“In order to effectively reduce stress levels using problem- and emotion-focused coping techniques, it’s important to identify what kind of stress you’re experiencing.”
Eustress is a beneficial form of stress, and the opposite of distress. Whenever we face a positive personal challenge – for instance, giving a presentation, running a race or completing an exam – the excitement and nervous anticipation of eustress can motivate us to perform at peak capacity. Eustress increases creativity and generates a sense of elated fulfilment when we achieve a desired outcome.
Problem-focused stress management techniques: Maintain healthy levels of eustress by strategically planning your time effectively and setting challenging – but achievable – goals for yourself.
Emotion-focused stress management techniques: Eustress is all about perspective – it’s our reaction to a source of stress that determines whether our experience is positive or distressing. Maintain focus on the big picture, know that stress is temporary, and use it as motivation to reach your goals.
Acute stress is felt if we’re exposed to a shocking or traumatic event, such as an accident, natural disaster or the death of a loved one. Acute stress is short-term, and activates the ‘flight or fight response’ – the sympathetic nervous system floods the body with stress hormones, elevating the heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Feelings of intense anxiety, fear and anger are common. The acute stress response usually resolves once the perceived ‘threat’ to our safety has receded. In some cases though, acute stress can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder.
Problem-focused stress management techniques: Talk it out. Talk to family, friends, or seek counselling support. By externalising your feelings about what has happened and examining ways to reduce the stress triggered by the event, you can lessen sensations of worry, anger, grief and fear.
Max Strom is a globally renowned breathwork teacher and advocate – his TED Talk is an excellent introduction to the benefits of breathing exercises for stress management:
Episodic acute stress occurs when people experience a series of stressful events in succession. Repetitive stress episodes often result from a snowballing of personal challenges – such as losing a job, then developing health problems, followed by parenting difficulties. Episodic acute stress can also stem from constant worrying – it’s common in high-achieving people who place unrealistic or relentless demands on themselves in their professional and personal lives.
Problem-focused stress management techniques: Seeking support is the key to problem-focused coping when you’re feeling burdened by multiple sources of stress. Talk to your employer if you’re overcommitted at work, and ask for help from family and friends if you’re finding it hard to cope with commitments at home. Reducing the burden of episodic acute stress hinges on effective time management and sharing the load of daily responsibilities wherever possible.
Emotion-focused stress management techniques: If you’re experiencing a range of stressors and they’re taking their toll on your emotional wellbeing, it’s vitally important that you’re gentle with yourself. Remind yourself that you’re coping as best you can in the circumstances, and focus on what you have achieved. For instance, the dishes are done, medical appointments are attended, or you’ve updated your CV. Reframe negative or catastrophic thoughts about your situation by reminding yourself that you are coping, and moving in the right direction.
Chronic stress results from feeling an immense amount of emotional and psychological pressure over a prolonged period of time. Chronic stress may develop in response to external circumstances, or as a reaction to a person’s internal state. For instance, chronic stress often stems from overwork, physical illness or a mood imbalance, like anxiety.
Problem-focused stress management techniques: Chronic stress responds incredibly well to simple lifestyle adjustments. Getting more sleep, exercising and maintaining a healthy diet seem like stress management clichés, but the evidence shows they work.
A German study demonstrated that a daily dose of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) alleviates the symptoms of chronic stress, by reducing cortisol levels. An orange a day to keep the stress at bay? It’s a great start!
Emotion-focused stress management techniques: Mindfulness meditation is an incredibly useful tool to combat the low moods associated with chronic stress. A recent meta-analysis of 47 trials researching the benefits of mindfulness meditation to treat stress found that mindfulness meditation significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression for study participants, and the effects were still in evidence 6 months later.
Of course, if you’ve tried a range of stress management techniques and still find that you’re in a constant state of nervous tension – or feeling overwhelmed by all that life has thrown at you – counselling can help. Speaking to an experienced stress management counsellor or psychologist about what’s bothering you, identifying ways to solve your issues and putting those solutions into action can significantly improve your stress levels and overall wellbeing.
Brody, S., Preut, R., Schommer, K., & Schürmeyer, T. H. (2002). A randomised controlled trial of high dose ascorbic acid for reduction of blood pressure, cortisol, and subjective responses to psychological stress. Psychopharmacology, 159(3), 319-324.
Carroll, L. (2013). Problem-focused coping. In Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine (pp. 1540-1541). Springer New York.
Christmann, C. A., Hoffmann, A., & Bleser, G. (2017). Stress management apps with regard to emotion-focused coping and behaviour change techniques: A content analysis. JMIR mHealth and uHealth, 5(2), e22.
Cusack, K., Jonas, D. E., Forneris, C. A., Wines, C., Sonis, J., Middleton, J. C., … & Weil, A. (2016). Psychological treatments for adults with posttraumatic stress disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 43, 128-141.
Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., … & Ranasinghe, P. D. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357-368.
Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., & Nock, M. K. (2013). Improving acute stress responses: The power of reappraisal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 51-56.
Regehr, C., Glancy, D., & Pitts, A. (2013). Interventions to reduce stress in university students: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 148(1), 1-11.
Shields, G. S., Sazma, M. A., & Yonelinas, A. P. (2016). The effects of acute stress on core executive functions: A meta-analysis and comparison with cortisol. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 68, 651-668.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.