How Do You Know When Your Level of Stress May Require Professional Intervention?

There is a ubiquitous quality to stress.  A 2017 Gallup Poll completed with American participants regarding stress, found that approximately eighty percent of people surveyed endorsed feeling daily stress either frequently (44%) or periodically (35%).  Another 17% of responders endorsed feeling stressed rarely, and 4% surveyed indicated not currently experiencing daily stress.  The American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America report, found that Americans noted experiencing stress at a rate that was consistent with the levels reported the previous year.  However, the responders indicated experiencing increased consequences or symptoms related to stress, such as insomnia.  Going through periods of heightened stress is a common hurdle faced in life.  One important aspect regarding stress is that it exists on a continuum or spectrum.  Therefore, how does one go about deciphering if one’s current level of stress reaches the threshold of seeking professional help, or if it is something that one could readily manage on one’s own?  This blog reviews six questions to ask yourself to help make that determination.

Are you able to still function effectively, despite the stress?

When it comes to stress, as with other things, one tried and true way of assessing what state things are in is to consider to what extent your level of stress is negatively impacting your functioning.  We are all called to function in various ways, such as completing various tasks at work or school, or to rise to the occasion to meet day to day expectations in our relationships, or to find a way to accomplish all of the things on our To Do Lists – while still managing to take decent care of ourselves.

When you find yourself unable to function in a way that you feel is adequate in any core area of life, this is one key sign that the level of stress you are experiencing may be helpful to discuss with someone else.  An indicator of stress perhaps having grown out of control is when someone begins avoiding aspects of life, which become problematic to avoid.  When one finds oneself shutting down from one’s level of stress, isolating, and doing things such as letting deadlines pile up, procrastinating on critical tasks, and avoiding necessary responsibilities, that is an indication that change is needed.  If one tries trusted methods of managing stress to address the impairment in functioning with no significant change, this is a sign that professional help may be useful.

Are your coping skills helping matters, or perhaps contributing to your overall stress level?

There are numerous factors that may cause stress to accumulate to the point where it becomes unmanageable.  One common reason for this is a lack of healthy and adaptive coping skills.  Adaptive coping skills are skills that help you to face a stressor, in a way that does not cause you harm. In some cases, adaptive coping skills may even help you to improve your longer term functioning – in any number of areas.  For example, going on walks may be one tool that some may utilize to cope.  There are numerous health benefits associated with walking, and for some it is a preferred strategy for reducing stress.  What complicates matters sometimes is that it can be a challenge to find adaptive coping skills that meet two important criteria: skills that one feels works, and that one will actually use. Making an effort to find coping skills that are adaptive, work well for you, and that you will actually use, may take creativity and determination – yet is possible.

Luckily, there are tons of activities that can readily fall into the adaptive coping skills category.  This could include for example embarking on various types of creative endeavors, such as playing an instrument, painting, or writing short stories. It can be exercise in various forms, deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, or prioritizing setting healthy boundaries.  There are other adaptive coping skills that may help, such as obtaining emotional support from people who respect you and treat you well, practicing gratitude, or taking time to plan regarding how to achieve long-term goals.

Sometimes stress builds because the mechanisms we choose to manage stress provide some degree of immediate relief, yet contribute to negative emotional, physical, relational, or financial consequences in the long-term.  If you find yourself excessively escaping into behaviors that you recognize in the long-term are making things much worse, this pattern may unfortunately be working to keep you trapped in a cycle of stress, dissatisfaction, and stagnation.  Finding balance is important.  If you realize that you have come to rely heavily on behaviors to manage stress that have a destructive impact, and are having trouble pivoting towards healthier outlets, this is another sign that therapy may potentially be helpful.

Are you overly minimizing the impact your current stressors are having, or conversely perhaps magnifying the difficulties in every challenge?

Another culprit for stress accumulating is how we speak to ourselves, and others, about our stress.  Being strong is a character trait that many strive to achieve.  There is nothing wrong with this. It is just also equally important for us to be honest with ourselves about our reactions to the things currently occurring, or that have occurred, in our lives.  The arguably prevailing notion that strength means never feeling sad, anxious or stressed, is problematic. Minimizing stressors makes it harder to directly address them, because the pretense becomes that there is nothing to address.  If this pretense is false, seeing life through this lens can ultimately make circumstances worse.

On the other end of this spectrum is when people find themselves caught in a trap of only thinking about what could go wrong, or what has gone wrong.  There is a concept known as anticipatory anxiety.  In a nutshell, it is when we predetermine what obstacles we might face in a particular situation (say a job interview) before the experience occurs.  Anticipatory anxiety to an extent, can be helpful. Completing a thoughtful assessment of potential challenges, allows us to problem solve in advance.  It is often extremely important to be upfront with ourselves about what life may bring.  However, it is also helpful to look at those potential future events as challenges that can be managed.  If we only think about what could or has gone wrong, and do not shift our focus to include active problem solving, we may inadvertently engage in thinking that increases stress to unmanageable levels.  This then risks thwarting our potential.  If you are finding that despite your best efforts that it is difficult to not minimize or magnify challenges, a therapist may help you to gain the perspective needed, to start the process of getting an effective handle on your stress levels.

Are you finding yourself trapped in chronic patterns that are difficult to escape?

Another indicator that it may be helpful to discuss the stress you are experiencing with a professional is if you find yourself caught in painfully repetitive patterns that are chronically creating stress.  For example, are you engaging in the same tense interactions with family?  Do you feel as though every person you date hurts you in the same predictable way?  Are you re-experiencing stress in the same manner over and over again, almost like the instructions on a bottle of shampoo – lather, rinse, repeat?  It can be difficult to determine why these cyclic patterns exist.  It may be that you aware of many of the reasons why these things are occurring, yet may feel unable to take the steps necessary to make useful changes.  It may be that you do not know where to begin to interrupt the pattern.  However, if you can identify with repeatedly falling into unhelpful patterns that increase your stress level and reduce you quality of life, this would also be suggestive that speaking with a professional may be helpful.

Are there underlying factors from the past that make existing (or even potentially thriving) in the present less possible?

Another sign that meeting with a therapist may be useful is if you find yourself very stressed by things that you truly believe are relatively mild in their impact.  Having strong reactions to relatively less significant challenges is sometimes due to unresolved feelings about much more significant challenges that one has faced in the past.  We all have a finite bandwidth of coping with stress, even despite best efforts to increase this bandwidth.

Having unresolved difficulties, such as an unresolved trauma history, can make it tremendously more difficult to manage day-to-day stressors.  If this is the case, there fortunately are options.  Sometimes people have no interest, for a variety of reasons, to delve into turbulence experienced in the past.  Sometimes people avoid therapy for this very reason.  They may say to a friend, “Well I don’t want to talk about that traumatic event that happened X number of years ago, and a therapist will probably make me do that, so I’m not going!”

I believe it is important to find a therapist who takes a collaborative approach.  In this case, you work with your therapist to set the pace and goals for your treatment. Maybe you seek shorter term therapy to address developing strategies and techniques to manage current day-to-day challenges.  Perhaps you engage in longer term work, and meet specifically at some point with a therapist who specializes in trauma.  There is no one size fits all treatment.  If you do decide to seek treatment, it often helps to be vocal about what would be useful to you, and actively engage in ongoing communication with your therapist regarding the treatment goal(s).

Has a change in life roles, a new accomplishment, or a stage new of life, left you feeling unsure of how to effectively cope?

Traditionally, we often think of someone entering therapy after something painfully life altering or catastrophic happens.  We can all likely think of examples of what this may mean.  Maybe it is an unexpected death, or being laid off from work and struggling to find another position, while in a precarious financial position.  Perhaps it is obtaining a devastating medical diagnosis, or having a marriage end. The upheaval, stress, and other negative emotions that may result as a consequence of these life events, are all certainly reasons why someone may seek therapy.

What at times is overlooked, is that an experience or event that may be considered favorably, may also have components in it that creates some challenges. Sometimes life transitions that one may welcome and celebrated milestones, can create stress that one feels ill equipped to handle.  Have you ever heard people discuss how every new stage of life may require growth and becoming a more evolved version of yourself?  Well, at times stress may build because one does not quite feel able to handle a life change that some may describe as causing “good stress” (starting or returning to school, buying a home, getting a promotion, welcoming a new baby into your family, etc.).

You may feel completely competent with respect to your ability to manage stress at one stage.  However, changes in your life may cause you to feel more overwhelmed, and perhaps in need of some support to meet new challenges.  For example, perhaps someone never considered obtaining a tutor for a particular subject, until that person reached a significantly more advanced course in that subject area. Alternatively, perhaps someone never contemplated seeking the help of a financial advisor, until that person began to more seriously work towards accomplishing a goal that would require a certain degree of financial resources.  As another possibility, consider a scenario where a person has struggled with assertiveness to some degree.  That person may have found ways that generally worked to address this – until the potentially increased stress experienced after obtaining a new management position.

If you have experienced a life change that is causing considerable stress, and you find yourself feeling stymied with regard to managing the inherent relational, emotional, or behavioral aspects of the change, a therapist may be the professional with the requisite skill set to help you navigate this new stage.  Sometimes in treatment, it is a matter of strengthening and reinforcing skills that have served you well in a previous stage or time.  Other times, you may develop a whole new set of tools to help you to flourish under the stress of new demands.  Perhaps if you were to partake in treatment, your experience might consist of a combination of these two potential outcomes.  The approaches a professional may take to help you to improve the situation, will undoubtedly vary.  However ultimately, obtaining treatment if you find yourself falling into this final category, may help you to feel that the new stage you have entered is one that you become more empowered and confident to manage.

This blog was meant to provide some useful general guidelines for when to potentially consider seeking treatment when experiencing stress, rather than meant to be an exhaustive list in this subject area. If you believe that treatment would be useful, it is often a good rule of thumb to begin the steps needed to seek treatment – even if you feel unsure.  Your provider can help determine if treatment is necessary at that time, and what type of treatment may be of use. With the correct tools and strategies, even the most tremendously stressful times can become more manageable.  I hope you have found this blog helpful. Here’s to developing better ways to manage stress! 

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