Approaches to stress management involve changing your mental perspective. For example, improving your ability to gauge when enough is enough and when to ask for help and developing the skill to say ‘no’. Stress therapy also involves the teaching and practice of relaxation techniques such as breathing and relaxation exercises, mindfulness and meditation. Your psychotherapist will work with you to comprehensively evaluate your way of living and to identify the key factors which are causing your stress.

Psytherapy uses four main approaches to help our clients to manage their stress. Depending on the individual, one or all of the following approaches will be used:

Stress and cognitive behavioural therapy

As we mentioned on our emotional dysregulation page, our environment and our individual biology and personalities determine our thoughts, our thoughts determine our feelings or emotions and how we feel determines our behaviour. Negative thoughts can create more stress in our lives. Stress is to an extent necessary in particularly adverse or threatening situations, in order to trigger an adequate response or defence mechanism. But in some cases, the stress we experience is not in proportion to the challenges faced.

When emotional regulation goes wrong, for example in a vicious emotional cycle, it’s important for you to evaluate the reality of your thoughts. If these aren’t in line with the circumstance, you need to change your way of thinking about the situation and in doing so, the level of stress you feel will decrease. CBT also helps you to identify the specific events and subsequent thoughts that cause the most stress. You can then avoid these as much as possible.

In severe situations, CBT can help you to manage your stress and can equip you with the mental tools for doing so in the future but relaxation techniques may be more of a priority in extreme cases. For example when the problem is more to do with the actual events (which we cannot change) as opposed to your evaluation of the events.  

Relaxation techniques to alleviate stress

  • Progressive muscle relaxation: a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body.
  • Body scan meditation: a type of meditation during which you focus your attention on various parts of your body, noticing how they feel.
  • Mindfulness meditation: meditation that focuses on what’s happening right now, enabling you to be fully engaged in the present moment and feel calmer.
  • Rhythmic movement and mindful exercise: rhythmic exercises that get your mind and body into a flow of repetitive movement.
  • Visualisation: imagining a scene in which you feel at peace, free to let go of all tension and anxiety.
  • Yoga and tai chi: a series of both moving and stationary poses, combined with deep breathing.
  • Deep breathing: slow, long and controlled breathing patterns. When you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax (it opposes the fight or flight response.
  • Self-massage relaxes muscles and releases tension (also opposing the fight or flight response).

Stress and psychoanalytic therapy

Psychoanalytic therapy might be a beneficial approach for you if you have been experiencing stress over an extended period of time. “Chronic stress” is the response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged timeframe in which an individual perceives they have little or no control. It involves an endocrine system response in which corticosteroids are released. In these cases, it’s important to delve deeper into the potential root cause of your stress which may be a traumatic event or phase of your life from the past.

Stress and existential therapy

If your stress stems from feeling unclear and uncertain about your direction and life choices some existential therapy may be appropriate. You may be feeling lost, numb, faced with traumatic events, experiencing a sense of lack of meaning in life and apathy causing you to feel stressed. Focusing on the human condition as a whole, existential therapy highlights human capacities and encourages you to acknowledge your weaknesses and in a sense come to terms with your stress but also take responsibility for your successes.

What is the definition of stress in psychology?

The American Association of Psychology/APA’s definition of stress is, “any uncomfortable emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioural changes.” It is also defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.

The psychology behind stress

Stress occurs when we feel overwhelmed by pressures and demands. We feel stressed because we feel that we are unable to cope with these events and as a result, we feel anxious. In fact, whenever we’re confronted with something unexpected or frustrating, stress usually arises.

How does stress affect our brains?

Perceived stress, triggers a response in our bodies. The fight or flight reaction is activated which releases the stress chemicals, adrenaline and cortisol. This fight or flight response, in turn, increases the experience of feeling stressed. Hence we can become stuck in a vicious cycle of stress (visit our emotional regulation page to find out more about this). Stress affects the higher executive functions of our mind, as well as affecting our bodies and emotions. Increased cortisol production is detrimental to the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex and affects learning ability and memory function.

Psychological distress vs stress

Stress is often used to describe a mental state caused by excessive pressure of work. Distress is found in contexts in which people have been subject to traumatic experiences. But what do these words mean to psychotherapists?

Stress usually refers to a state of imbalanced physiological or psychological conditions caused by stressors (either internal or external pressures). To maintain the balance or reduce or overcome the challenges faced, physiological changes occur, collectively called the stress response. Through the stress response, we can change or adapt to a stressful condition. But when the stressful condition isn’t adapted for a long time or if the stress is intense, it may bring distress (which is not helpful).

Distress can be said as the inability to cope with adverse conditions, or a condition that’s painful physically or mentally, that’s observable in behaviour. An acute or chronic stress condition can also be regarded as distress because it also brings pain and a sense of not being able to control the stressor.


Why is stress bad for us?

Stress can lead to both physical and psychological health issues. Some stress can be beneficial at times, for example producing a drive in energy stress can help people get through situations such as work deadlines. However, an extreme amount of stress, for a prolonged period, can have health consequences and adversely affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems.

Stress is mentally draining and causes exhaustion which can lead to cognitive impairment that includes issues with attention and working memory. Unfortunately, this memory impairment can still be detected three years later, even after the exhaustion has been addressed. This highlights the importance of managing stress before it reaches this point.​ In addition, when you become exhausted, you may use coffee, nicotine and other stimulants to help overcome this. But by doing so, you exacerbate the stress, which can lead to insomnia and relying on alcohol or substances to calm you down.

Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. The stress hormone, cortisol interferes with learning and memory, lowers immune function and has been linked to decreased bone density, increases in weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease. Chronic stress and the related elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and there is some evidence that it may lower life expectancy.

Stress and memory

Stress works with and against our memory. A little stress can be a great motivator, as any student can tell you. But stress can also inhibit the way we form and retrieve memories and can affect how our memory works.

Stressed people struggle to create short-term memories and convert those into long-term memories, meaning that it is more difficult to learn new information when stressed. If you are stressed during an event, you may have more difficulty accurately remembering the details of the event later. The stress you felt affects your perceptions (and memory formation) as well as your ability to recall what you perceived at the time.

Symptoms of psychological stress include:

Physical pain/discomfort

  • Frequent headaches, jaw clenching or pain
  • Gritting, grinding teeth
  • Neck ache, back pain, muscle spasms
  • Lightheadedness, faintness or dizziness
  • Frequent blushing or sweating
  • Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
  • Abdominal discomfort: heartburn, stomach pain, nausea
  • Respiratory changes: difficulty breathing or frequent sighing. Chest pain, palpitations, rapid pulse
  • Frequent urination
  • Diminished sexual desire

Psychological unease

  • Excess anxiety, worry, guilt, nervousness
  • Increased anger, frustration, hostility
  • Depression, frequent or wild mood swings
  • Sudden attacks of life-threatening panic

You can read our blog post on the physical symptoms of stress here.