Stress Management

Stress comes in all shapes and sizes and can stem from just about any aspect of life, from major transitions to the countless little tasks that make up daily life.

Definitions of stress vary, but most include the idea of mental, physical, or emotional tension. When you feel stressed, you might also feel overwhelmed, have trouble relaxing or sleeping, or experience other symptoms of common mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.

Different things feel stressful to different people, but all of us have experienced life stress one way or another. In fact, stress can even be helpful; it might motivate you to achieve your goals or give you energy to complete a task.

But when stress becomes too frequent or intense, it can have negative consequences for your physical and mental health. So, finding ways to manage stress through self-care, integrative health, healthy diet, or talking with a therapist may be good options for stress relief.

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Prevalence of stress

Stress is extremely common in the United States.

A 2020 report on stress levels in America shows that the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftereffects, in combination with other cultural and political factors, has prompted the American Psychological Association to declare, “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.” Some troubling statistics include:

  • 78% of survey participants report the pandemic is a significant source of stress
  • Women report higher average levels of stress than do men
  • Gen Z adults report the highest levels of stress (ages 18-23)
  • 43% of Gen Z teens (ages 13-17) say their stress levels have increased over the past year
  • 67% of Americans saw an increase in their stress levels over the course of the pandemic
  • 77% of adults experienced stress as a common worry about the long-term well-being of the country

Causes of stress

Stress stems from varied factors. The same 2020 study found [2]:

  • 64% of participants were stressed about money issues
  • 64% experienced work stress and concerns about job security
  • 59% were significantly concerned by the nation’s social divisiveness and discrimination
  • 68% of participants (all of whom were Americans) were stressed by the 2020 presidential election and the inflammatory political atmosphere, regardless of party affiliation

Symptoms of stress

Everyone reacts to stress differently, but the following are a few of the most common symptoms:

  • Anxiety or worry: You may be frequently preoccupied, having negative thoughts, or find your thoughts racing.
  • Feeling overwhelmed: Stress can make you feel like you’re not able to manage all your life’s demands.
  • Conflicts with friends, family, and colleagues: You may be irritable, and less patient with others.
  • Physical symptoms: Stress often comes with physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles.
  • Difficulty sleeping: You might have trouble falling asleep which leads to not getting enough sleep or waking up feeling unrested.

Different types of stress

Stress comes in countless forms. Some common forms of stress include:

  • Day-to-day stressors: Your packed schedule, your pinging phone, your endless to-do list: All these aspects of your life can contribute to overall daily stress.
  • Relationship-related stress:  You might experience stress as a result of challenges in your relationships with friends, significant others, or stressful situations in your family life.
  • Work-related stress: Work and career concerns are very common sources of long-term stress, from conflicts with coworkers or bosses to burnout and work-life balance.
  • Major life changes: Any big change is likely to come with some degree of stress whether it is a serious illness or singular traumatic event. Even a happy change like getting married or landing a dream job can raise the stress level.
  • Stress related to discrimination: Individuals who are discriminated against based on race, ethnicity, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability often experience chronic stress as a result.
  • Stress related to politics or current events: Since the 2016 election, and again in 2020, concern over the state of the country was a leading source of stress for Americans [1, 2]. News stories, world events, and even broad social issues like inequality can all be significant sources of personal stress.

Related: Eustress vs. Distress

What to do if you’re stressed out

If you’re looking for tools to manage or reduce stress in your life, consider the following options:

  • Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you understand your situation and learn proven techniques for managing stress. Based upon their style and approach, you can benefit by learning to regulate your emotional response to stressful situations, understand how your body reacts to stressful events, and learn important stress relief techniques for greater well-being.
  • Check-ups: Because stress can be related to medical conditions, it’s important to stay up to date with your medical appointments. Scheduling a check-up with your primary care doctor can help you rule out physical health conditions (blood pressure, heart disease, poor eating behaviors) that may contribute to your symptoms. Your doctor can also help you plan nutritional strategies for alleviating stress, like avoiding caffeine, and drinking alcohol, or eating a more balanced diet.
  • Exercise: Some studies show that regular physical activity can decrease symptoms of anxiety, which often go along with stress.[3]. Tai Chi is an option for both mindfulness and exercise!
  • Meditation or mindfulness practices.  You can experiment with meditation or other mindfulness practices through classes or apps that promote relaxation techniques and deep breathing to manage stress. Studies have shown that these practices can relieve stress and help reduce the symptoms of anxiety that may accompany stress. [4]
  • Creative pursuits: Visual arts, performing arts, and creative writing can all be helpful ways to diffuse your body’s stress response and add fulfilling activities to your daily life.
  • Nature: Studies suggest that spending time in a natural setting – even a city park – can have beneficial effects on individuals’ lower stress levels. [5]

Related: Calm Yourself Down: 5 Ways To Find Peace In Extreme Overwhelm

How to look for a therapist for stress management

Find an approach to stress management that resonates with you

Almost all therapists have training in helping clients address stress relief and related problems — the key is finding out what therapy approaches and techniques to addressing stress resonate most with you.

Some common therapy types for stress management include:

Ask what approach your potential therapist takes to stress management therapy, and what approaches have proven effective for them.

Understand what clientele the therapist works most commonly with

In addition, knowing what clientele a therapist works with can inform your decision of whether you want to work with them as well.

Does your therapist see many high achievers? Or do they mostly see college students? Do they have an understanding of your creative arts profession? Do they take a culturally competent approach to treatment? Have they supported clients dealing with stress from your particular situation (e.g., stress from divorce, loss of a parent, or moving to a new city)?

Seeing a therapist who has an appreciation of your background and circumstances can be helpful in sessions as you explain the stressors you’re experiencing.

Know what questions to ask potential therapists

These questions may prove helpful when interviewing potential therapists:

  • What therapy type (Possibly one of the examples above) do you use when helping clients manage their stress levels?
  • Do you have experience working with clients who have my particular symptoms of stress?  

Prioritize personal fit with the therapist

While personal fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as therapeutic alliance.

On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:

  • Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist?
  • Does their approach suit my personality?
  • Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?

Additionally, consider these factors:

  • Some therapists are more reflective and spend most of the session listening and drawing insights about your patterns and coping styles.
  • Some therapists are more directive, establishing weekly agendas and assigning tasks to complete between sessions.
  • Some use specific techniques or tools (exposure exercises, eye movements, tapping, deep breath work, guided imagery, art and music, etc.).
  • Some use a combination of multiple approaches.

Consider cost, location, and scheduling

he last thing you want is added stress from navigating inconvenient logistics! Before making an appointment, consider the following:

  • Can I afford these session fees? The cost of therapy for stress depends on location, practitioner, and whether you’re using insurance.
  • Can I commit to attending sessions regularly? Remember to account for travel time, and other demands in your schedule.

New to therapy? Learn more about how to find a therapist.