Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Help With Stress?

Stress can help you to feel motivated, be productive and accomplish tasks faster. A little bit of stress can be good for you – would you ever get things done if you didn’t feel pressured to do them at all? In today’s society, however, many of us are under intense, prolonged stress. The stress reaction – also referred to as the flight-or-fight reaction – is designed to be quick. It gives us a sense of urgency and prepares our bodies for action. From an evolutionary point of view, this is necessary for survival.

The evolutionary basis of stress

From an evolutionary point of view, the fight-or-flight reaction was vital to help us flee from predators. This reaction causes your body to release hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. These hormones prepare your body for action - your pulse gets quicker, more blood flows to the muscles, and your blood pressure rises. Your body is literally getting ready to run or to fight. Once the situation is over and you are safe again, these hormone levels should drop back to normal. The reaction is meant to be short-lived, to help you survive dangerous situations. The problem is, today the “dangers” we perceive rarely have to do with survival and running away from predators. The stressors we have in today’s society are more likely relationship or work-related – and these stressors are likely to be long-term issues.

In prolonged stress, there is no sense of relief from the perceived danger. This is the reason why people who are under stress often feel tense and may have high blood pressure. Chronic, long-term activation of the stress response and overexposure to the stress hormones can cause several health issues, such as insomnia, anxiety, depression, weight gain, memory impairment, and even heart disease. The doctors really are not kidding when they say stress is bad for you!

Differentiating “good stress” from “bad stress”

Stress is designed to be helpful. “Good stress” – such as when you know you have a deadline to meet - helps us be quicker, more efficient and productive. The difference between feeling just enough pressure to help you stay motivated and being too stressed to the point of it becoming a problem, is how you are coping. If you feel you have too much on your plate, and you don’t feel like you can cope, stress will become harmful. If you feel like you have a lot to do, but still believe you can get everything done and do not feel overwhelmed, you can probably cope with the stress without it becoming bad for you. The difference here is your perception of the stress. This is the idea behind cognitive behavioral therapy; it’s not the workload itself that causes you stress, it’s the way you perceive it. It’s like Henry Ford said; “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right”.

How CBT can help you to deal with stress

If your idea of going to therapy is lying on a couch talking about your childhood, whilst your therapist writes on his/her notepad and nods along, you are probably thinking of an old school psychotherapy session. Cognitive behavioral therapy is completely different. You will work together with your therapist to help you learn to identify and challenge negative thought patterns that ultimately cause you to feel overwhelmed and stressed. You may have cognitive distortions, such as catastrophising, where you blow small things completely out of proportion. You might be experiencing irrational negative thoughts, such as “I cannot cope with stress now, therefore I will never be able to cope with the stress”. These are common and can be challenged and turned into more positive ones with the help of your therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy is all about changing the way you think, as this will ultimately change the way you feel. Imagine two people looking at a mountain, on their way to climb to the top. The other one believes they can climb to the top, although they know it will be difficult. They probably feel excited for the challenge. The other person sees the mountain and doesn’t believe they have what it takes to climb to the top. They probably feel defeated and not motivated at all. Your perception is what matters, and CBT can help you change that.

Janica Niva

Janica has her bachelors in psychology from the University of Strathclyde and her Msc Clinical Health Psychology from the University of Strathclyde. She loves psychology, statistics, and scientific writing. She's also interested in humanistic sciences, travel, health, and holistic well being.

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