By Dr Kirsty Kennedy
There’s not many of us who can say we don’t get stressed from time to time, especially in our fast paced world. However, at times it can grow to become a particular problem and often this is the point at which people seek specialist psychological help. People can often sustain a high level of stress and a fast pace for a period of time and then, apparently all of a sudden, start to feel exhausted along with depression, anxiety, burn out, physically illness or that some extra small problem that is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and something has to change.
Each of us will have a different set of factors that influence our own particular reaction to stress. If you see a clinical psychologist, understanding this is part of making an individual psychological formulation, a map to help understand where things are getting stuck and what might need to change to ease distress. It will be developed in close collaboration with you, and should make intuitive sense as well as provide a solution.
Sometimes it is possible to make some simple life changes that can ease stress or start to reverse the vicious cycle of exhaustion. Basic cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) theory tells us it can be helpful to break it down into four components: (i) behaviour, (i) thoughts, (i) emotions and (i) body sensations.
Behaviour – Changing behaviour might include taking actions to lessen the effects of stress or it might mean making changes in life to remove or reduce the source of stress; This could be anything from not checking your smartphone first thing in the morning, reducing caffeine intake, improving ‘sleep hygiene’, seeking advice/mentorship to changing your job. You can use an activity record, to track both patterns and changes, many of which are available free of charge online.
Thoughts (cognitive) –Our evolution means that feeling stressed will tend to take our thoughts towards fear, for example tending to ‘catastrophise’. You can see a list of the ways fear will distort our thoughts here. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t recognise a good handful of these! If you think your thoughts might be out of perspective, you might talk it through with someone you trust to gain a different view. Or think about what you would advise someone you love if they were in your position. You might begin a gratitude journal to help move your thoughts to the positive. If you do so, you would be right on trend; even The Guardian newspaper is writing about it.
Emotions – Sometimes we can worsen a stressed feeling by trying not to feel it. Easier said than done, it’s true, but it can be helpful to allow feelings to be present and to use positive affirmation (e.g. ‘this too will pass’). Strangely you might find it actually eases the feelings! Much modern psychological understanding uses mindfulness to manage emotion, including one of the most recent incarnations of CBT called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (if you would like further reading try The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris). There are many apps that can guide you too, including Calm and Headspace.
Physical sensations – These can be strong and scary during periods of acute stress, from muscular tension, vision changes, racing heart to panicky breathlessness. You might think there is something physically wrong with you. This is entirely natural, because we are equipped to go quickly into our body’s emergency mode, also known as the fight or flight response. This is essential to our survival when there is an immediate danger (e.g. a physical attack) and it is less helpful (and makes less sense) when the stressful stimuli is of a more different nature (e.g. threat of job loss). Knowing your body’s response to stress can help, as well as activities such as physical exercise.
Seeing a professional such as a clinical psychologist can help you think about your stress reactions in an objective and private setting. In addition to the suggestions above, there may be patterns of beliefs or relationships you learned long ago that are getting in the way.
It is never too late to begin to make fundamental changes to your life and wellbeing.
Kirsty is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and works at the York Clinic in York. If you’d like to find out more, please do contact Kirsty via her confidential email address – firstname.lastname@example.org . Alternatively to book an appointment with Kirsty, please contact Kirsty on 07954 996 360