It is natural to experience stress from time to time. At a certain level, it can actually be helpful, as a way to motivate oneself to take decisive actions and tackle problems head-on. But constant, unmanaged stress can be very harmful to mental and physical health, as well as to relationships, careers, and more.
Proper stress management is therefore essential to overall well-being, and mindfulness techniques tailored specifically toward this purpose can be a crucial step in that process.
What is Stress?
Everyone experiences stress, some more than others, but it’s worth taking a step back to ask: what is stress, exactly?
In physiological terms, it’s a manifestation of what is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. As a reaction to stimuli perceived as dangerous (or “stressors”), the body undergoes dramatic physical changes: a rush of adrenaline and other stimulating chemicals, increased heart rate, heightened awareness, muscle tautness, etc.
The point of all of these responses is to leave us better-prepared to deal with dangerous situations, which in itself is obviously a natural and even positive thing. But problems arise when stress is frequent or prolonged.
This is captured by the APA’s division of types of stress, the relative severity of which is based on how frequent or long the stress response lasts:
Acute stress: a short-term stress response to a particular, generally short-lived, stressor or stressors, like an argument, or an upcoming deadline; stress abates when those stressors are no longer present and/or the situation that gave rise to them is resolved.
Episodic acute stress: repeated experiences of acute stress, due to life circumstances that give rise to frequent stressors, whether the same (constant arguments or work deadlines) or varied (a stressful line of work in general).
Chronic stress: Prolonged and constant stress, generally the result of life circumstances in which stressors are, or appear to be, omnipresent, like an unhappy marriage or prolonged financial difficulties; it could also be brought on by a traumatic event or events in the past.
At a certain point, stress stops being a useful motivator or a sensible response to challenging situations, and can actually prevent us from dealing with those situations. It starts to affect our mental and physical health: we eat less, we have trouble sleeping, our blood pressure rises, our immune system becomes affected, our muscles tense too often and too long, etc.
Those who suffer from chronic stress, in particular, are at risk of great harm, both physically (heart attack, stroke) and mentally (breakdowns that can lead to suicide or violent outbursts).
How Can Therapy Help?
The key to effective stress management is to identify stressors, especially those linked to frequent or prolonged stress, and either take steps to resolve them or find ways to shift one’s frame of mind in order to be less affected by them.
This is, of course, easier said than done, and there’s no shame in admitting when we can’t manage on our own. Dealing with stress is made more difficult by that very stress itself and the toll it can take on our bodies and minds.
Working alongside a therapist to address and manage the sources of stress in our lives can be a way of gaining perspective and much-needed help. In marriage or family situations, therapy can help open up lines of communication that might be suffering due to stress, or even itself be a stressor.
Therapy can also help teach methods of coping with stress in the longer term. Learning to focus one’s awareness on the present, a practice commonly referred to as “mindfulness,” can make a big difference in how we react to stress as it arises, and consequently how we are able to address the stressor or stressors at the root of it.
Mindfulness & Stress Management Therapy serving Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Malibu, Oak Park, Westlake Village, Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park, Camarillo, Moorpark, Simi Valley, Oxnard and Ventura areas.