The Basics of Stress Management

Many people experience stress in day to day life. As with feelings of sorrow, stress can be normal and part of a healthy, balanced life. Sometimes, however, patients may develop imbalanced levels of stress, leading to poor mental health.

Stress in Our Lives

Stress can be useful. Think of the reaction one has to being startled by an animal in the wild. In this context, stress saves your life. Stress in modern life, however, can be far less useful. Having a stress reaction to a spouse or co-worker, as an example, can cause difficulties. Those in the military, too, may experience outsized stress as a result of extremely triggering events at war. Many of us need to learn stress management in order to maintain balance.

Techniques for Managing Stress

Therapists can help patients identify healthy and unhealthy levels of stress to serve as benchmarks. Then, they work together to come up with coping strategies.

As a starting point, patients should work with a therapist to assess what level of stress they have in their lives. The next step involves developing the skills a patient needs to cope with stress more effectively.

CBT Stress Management

CBT is one of the most effective ways to teach patients how to manage stress. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy involves talking through ways of thinking and learning new ways of thinking that better help one manage a situation or stressor. Patients can explore CBT in individual or group therapy settings.

Adjusting Our Lives to Manage Stress

Sometimes making adjustments in our lives can make managing stress that much easier. Small changes such as maintaining a schedule or listing the tasks for a day can ameliorate the experience of stress. A therapist can help a patient develop these tools. Other techniques include regular exercise and effective delegation during busy times.

Using Medication to Manage Stress

In some cases of extreme stress, patients may need medication to deal with their symptoms. Typically, medication is used in acute onset scenarios to cope in the moment and to avoid addiction, and in combination with psychotherapy.

Different Types of Stress

Stress can come in three different forms: acute, episodic, and chronic. As with any mental disorder, symptoms interfere with a patient’s quality of life. These categories of stress can come with physical symptoms, as well.

Acute Stress Disorder

Acute stress disorder presents when an unexpected triggering event occurs. It can be anything from the passing of a loved one to an accident that results in injury. The stress is sudden and overwhelming for the patient. The patient, too, carries the stress in to the days that follow, rather than sublimating it in healthier ways, and their stress continues for well past three days. If the symptoms, which can include a rise in stress hormones, continue for longer than 30 days, the patient may have an anxiety disorder.

Physical and Emotional Symptoms

Some of the physical and emotional symptoms of acute stress disorder include:

  • Limited emotional response
  • Being cut off from the outside world
  • Disassociating from the real world
  • Forgetting specifics of the traumatic event
  • Recurring flashbacks
  • Aversion to settings or people
  • Feelings of anxiety or irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Skittishness

Treating Acute Stress Disorder

As a first step, engaging in psychotherapy with a mental health professional is recommended. The mental health professional will work to rule out other mental disorders or causes. This may include referral for a full psychological evaluation and/or medication evaluation.

Chronic Stress Disorder

Chronic Stress Disorder presents when an individual has continuous stressors in life, such as from a job or difficult relationship. A patient with this disorder has high stress levels each and every day. Cortisol and adrenaline remain high on a daily basis, causing patients to develop related anxiety disorders. The chronic nature of this disorder can lead to long-lasting physical and mental issues.

Physical and Emotional Symptoms

Some of the common physical and emotional symptoms of chronic stress disorder include:

  • Irritableness in the extreme
  • Faulty concentration
  • Headache
  • Poor self esteem
  • Appetite fluctuations
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling that one is losing control

The Effects of Chronic Stress

If chronic stress is left untreated, patients may experience:

  • Heart disease
  • Weight gain
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Memory disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Gastrointestinal disorders

Treating Chronic Stress

A great starting point is making lifestyle changes that ameliorate the effects of the patient’s long-term stressors. The patient can work in tandem with their therapist to implement these changes. Cognitive behavior therapy can also be helpful in creating and maintaining long-term tools.

Episodic Acute Stress Disorder

Episodic acute stress disorder occurs in those who have what is commonly referred to as a Type A personality. As an acute disorder, the reactions in the patient occur intensely but in the short term. Many times the patient’s reactions stem from unrealistic goals or expectations for themselves.

In this disorder, the individual has an outsized reaction to something that another person would find inconsequential. These people are often mischaracterized as dramatic, but their feelings and physical symptoms are quite real. These outsized reactions can cause serious problems in their lives, relationships, and careers.

Physical and Emotional Symptoms

Those with episodic acute stress disorder often dismiss their symptoms, since others often dismiss them as overly dramatic. It is important for patients and loved ones to learn to recognize the signs of this very real disorder:

  • Inability to control anger
  • Increased heart rate
  • Irritability
  • Onset of panic attacks
  • Muscle aches or tension

If a patient does not receive intervention, he or she may develop:

  • Chronic headaches
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure

Episodic Acute Stress Treatment

As with other mental disorders, some combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle adjustments may be the best approach for the patient. Lifestyle recommendations may be as small as starting to exercise or larger in scope, such as getting a different job. CBT is a good therapeutic option; medication is a good choice during the acute onset of symptoms.

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