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How counselling can help manage stress

stress pencil (cropped)

Stress is staggeringly common. A recent survey of UK adults indicated that almost three-quarters had felt stressed to the point of being unable to cope in the last year.

One of the biggest concerns about stress is that people can be really struggling with its negative effects, but often presume it's something they need to learn to live with.

Stress can impact on your thoughts, feelings and also how you behave. Prolonged exposure to stress symptoms has a cumulative effect on the human body and can be linked to disruptions in sleep patterns, headaches, weight gain or weight loss. There are also potential links to other health issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

As a counsellor working with stress, one of the first things to try and do is identify what the trigger situations are. These will be individual for every person, but may include stress linked to work, either generally or perhaps connected to a particular project or a working relationship that is tricky or has broken down.

People sometimes presume that stress is work-related, but worry over personal finances, illness or relationship issues can also be triggers. Counselling in a person-centred way I'd seek to understand a client's triggers, attempting to understand as clearly as possible the root cause of the difficulties as the client sees and experiences them. The aim would be to then link in strategies and techniques to help the client be more aware of their stressful situations and how they might manage them in a way that stops their stress feeling quite so overwhelming.

How counselling helped James
Earlier this year I worked with a young, recently promoted surveyor, James, who was struggling with stress and anxiety he believed was connected to work as he juggled deadlines on multiple projects.

It soon became clear that James was also experiencing stress at home, in the process of buying a new house, and struggling with a problematic relationship with his parents.

Having spent several months trying to power through how he was feeling, James asked LionHeart for counselling. He was not sleeping well, felt he was making a lot of mistakes at work and trying to balance that alongside having quite heated arguments at home.

The thoughts around making mistakes at work had become quite invasive and would often become out of control quite quickly. Negative thoughts would start to block out everything else; he'd feel very panicky and unable to believe in himself.

We started looking at mindfulness and guided meditation exercises which helped James feel more relaxed. With time and persistence, he was able to use these in everyday life to help him feel more grounded.  

In order to try and work with the negative thoughts, we used a thought record. This is CBT technique, which asks a client to record negative thoughts, but also to think about what supports that thought as well as the evidence that challenges it. Sharing these as part of a counselling session helps a client to unpack the thoughts in a way that pushes them but is safe.  

We then started to look at what was within James's control, because his stress had left him feeling overwhelmed and unable to focus. Pulling together a list allowed James to see that there were things that he could take control of and change if he wanted to - but also that some were not within his control.

The final element that we focused on was his relationship with his parents, which had always been difficult although James was not able to understand why. We looked at attachment theory which helped James identify and understand a bit better not only his relationship with his parents but also how he related to others and why.  

James now feels more able to identify his stress triggers and use the techniques he has learnt to cope better. He no longer feels overwhelmed and is happier at work and at home.

Things you might not know about stress... 
Stress can literally break your heart. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or "broken heart syndrome," occurs when the bottom of the heart balloons into the shape of a pot. It's caused when grief or another extreme stressor makes stress hormones flood the heart.

The hormone cortisol is responsible for a lot of these ill effects. Elevated cortisol gives us a short-term boost but also suppresses the immune system, elevates blood sugar, and impedes bone formation.

Even the next generation pays a price: Researchers at the University of California find an association between high cortisol in mothers during late pregnancy and lower IQs in their children at age 7.

It can actually be good for you. Some major life changes like a new relationship, a promotion, or a relocation can all be good stressors, so embrace them!

Mark Hodson MBACP is one of LionHeart's counsellors. To find out more about our free professional counselling please click here 

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