What is Stress Management?

In stress management therapy, counselors help patients find healthy coping mechanisms for the stressors in their lives. Although everyone can except some stress in their daily lives, it can sometimes take over other healthy emotions and become too burdensome to manage. People who feel like all other emotions have taken a back seat to stress can benefit from the techniques in stress management.

The Role of Stress

Some amounts of stress can be not only healthy but even life-saving. For example, this critical emotion kicked in and saved our cave-dwelling ancestors when dangerous animals lurked near. Today, stress and fear keep people alert on the roads and can help them avoid fatal wrecks.

The problem arises when patients feel the same fight-or-flight response to events that do not physically threaten them. For example, stress over a project at work may stimulate the same centers of the brain, but it is not life-threatening. Furthermore, people sometimes hold on to the feelings of stress long after the stressor passes. Such is the case with people who have PTSD.

Stress Management Techniques

Mental health professionals use a variety of stress management techniques to help patients. Together, the therapists and patients work through these therapies and identify coping methods for the patient to implement in daily life.

Cognitive Therapy and Stress

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) remains a popular type of talk therapy due to its effectiveness and versatility. Stress management patients use CBT to identify unhealthy stress throughout their days the moment they feel it starting. The patients then use the coping mechanisms and positive thinking that their therapists teach them to reverse negative thinking.

Lifestyle Changes for Stress Management

Specific lifestyle changes can enhance the positive effects of CBT. Therapists may recommend changes in routines and habits as a way to minimize triggers. For example, someone who wants to control every aspect of life may need to learn to let go and delegate some tasks. When patients cannot minimize the stressors, professionals may recommend things like exercise as preemptive coping mechanisms.

Medication as Part of Stress Management

Some patients experience such severe stress that their mental health team recommends medication. Medication management for stress tends to be rare because the medicine that best treats extreme stress can be addictive. However, psychiatrists believe that benefits outweigh those potential drawbacks for some patients, especially if the person’s life is in danger.

Types of Stress

Patients all experience unhealthy stress in different ways. The main three types of stress are chronic, acute, and episodic, although people can deal with more than one of these manifestations. For any of these types of stress to rise to the level of diagnoses, it must be severe enough to affect the person’s daily life.

All three ways that stress manifests can result in physical symptoms as well. People with disordered stress may experience:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Frequent headaches
  • Extreme weight changes
  • Pain in the chest

There are effective treatments for all the ways that stress manifests. Patients do not have to live with the burden of disordered stress forever. The sections below detail the types of stress and specific treatments for each kind.

What is Chronic Stress Disorder?

Long-term stressors, such as high-pressure jobs, persistent financial troubles, or difficult relationships, cause Chronic Stress Disorder. Patients with this disorder experience unhealthy and life-disrupting levels of pressure nearly every day.

The consistent stress causes the patients to have elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels, which can lead to physical ailments over time. People with chronic stress constantly feel on high-alert, which makes it difficult to get healthy sleep. Some people with chronic stress develop anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks.

Signs of Chronic Stress

Without treatments, chronic stress can take more tolls on the body than the original symptoms. People with untreated chronic stress may develop comorbid disorders such as:

As tension builds up over time, patients with chronic stress may experience physical and emotional symptoms. The effects look different in every person, but some common signs include:

  • Trouble concentrating on work or school
  • Frequent and unexplained headaches
  • Sensing a lack of control
  • Extreme irritability
  • Plummeting self-esteem
  • Digestion difficulties and appetite changes
  • Feelings helpless or hopeless
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep

Chronic Stress Effects

Without treatments, chronic stress can take more tolls on the body than the original symptoms. People with untreated chronic stress may develop comorbid disorders such as:

Chronic Stress Treatment

Lifestyle changes and CBT remain the first-line treatment options for people with chronic stress. Patients and therapists may start by identifying the primary stressors in the patient’s life and finding ways to minimize the effects of those triggers. Counselors also recommend CBT, which teaches patients healthy coping mechanisms for the stressors that they cannot eliminate.

What is Acute Stress Disorder?

When a sudden and traumatic event brings on lots of fear at once, people can develop Acute Stress Disorder. The intense reaction to the trauma may continue for up to one month. Typically, events that trigger this type of stress involve threats to the patient or a loved one. For example, victims and witnesses of violent crimes may develop acute stress in reaction to the event. Furthermore, if a loved one dies suddenly, with or without foul play, the death can cause this reaction.

With chronic stress, the trigger is something that continues and so does the reaction. However, acute stress is an ongoing reaction to a one-time event. Acute stress is not the intense feelings someone experiences in the moments of and directly after a trauma; those feelings are healthy and expected. Instead, acute stress follows the patient in the days and weeks following the triggering event.

When someone experiences acute stress, he or she may have high-stress hormones for anywhere between three days and a month after the initial trauma. Any tension that lasts less than three days is likely a healthy reaction while feelings than continue for longer than a month may signal that the person has an anxiety disorder.

Acute Stress Disorder Signs

Much like other mental health disorders, acute stress disorder may present with both physical and mental signs. Each patient experiences the illness in their unique ways, but some common symptoms include:

  • Being easily startled
  • Unusual irritability
  • Flashbacks to the trauma that feel real
  • No memory of the traumatic event
  • Disassociating from reality
  • Panic attacks
  • Avoidance of situations or places associated with the trauma
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Decreasing awareness of surroundings
  • Being emotionally distant

Treatments for Acute Stress Disorder

Mental health professionals may start with a full psychiatric evaluation that helps them determine how much care the patient needs. For example, some patients need care in residential facilities to keep them safe. This process also involves ruling out other disorders that cause similar symptoms.

In addition to CBT and medication, mental health professionals may call in social workers to help. These professionals can guide patients through practical ways of dealing with the initial trauma. For instance, a victim of a violent crime may need help reporting the attack to the authorities.

What is Episodic Acute Stress Disorder?

Episodic Acute Stress Disorder occurs when a patient experiences extreme stress in reaction to relatively small triggers. Perfectionists and “Type A” personalities experience this type of pressure because any deviation from absolute perfection feels like life-or-death to the patient.

Like acute stress disorder, the reactions are intense and last for short periods. However, the triggers for episodic acute stress disorder tend to be internal. Unrealistic expectations for oneself can set people up to feel extreme stress after slight letdowns.

Unfortunately, some people regard these patients as “dramatic.” Misguided people sometimes believe that because the patient reacts strongly to mundane events, such as running late to work, the patient just wants attention. However, the feelings inside patients with episodic acute stress disorder are as real as if they were in physically threatening situations.

Consider someone who misses a deadline at work. Regardless of his boss’ response, he may worry that this will cause him to lose his job and eventually his house. In the patient’s mind, panic is an appropriate response because he believes his security is just about to go away. However, someone looking in from the outside may think he is irrational.

Episodic Acute Stress Disorder Symptoms

Some people with episodic acute stress disorder resist treatment because they believe their reactions are warranted. Furthermore, they may believe that seeking treatment is a weakness. However, the following signs point to the need for help:

  • Unexplained tightness or pain in the muscles
  • Persistent heartburn and other digestive problems
  • Recurring panic attacks
  • Increased heart rate
  • Uncontrolled rage and irritability

If patients continue without treatment, they can develop additional health problems, such as:

  • Recurring headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease

Episodic Acute Stress Treatment

People who experience the signs of episodic acute stress disorder should seek professional help, even though it may feel strange to ask for assistance. With CBT, lifestyle changes, and physical exercise, patients can lead happy lives without the effects of the disorder. In extreme cases, or when stress turns into anxiety, professionals may recommend medication as well.