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Stress--who doesn’t have it? It is beyond cliché to say that stress is endemic in American life--it’s a truism. We hear it so often that it has lost its meaning. Stress is often defined as the body’s response to the demands of life. Stress really includes the mind and emotions as well. Stress is the internal, conditioned reaction of a person to perceived external pressures. Stress is experienced as thoughts and feelings, as well as physical processes.

Causes of High Stress Levels

Stress can be caused by almost anything, from being late or hungry to stubbing one’s toe or losing a million dollar contract. Stress may be caused by both positive and negative life experiences. Some of the more common, highly stressful events in life include: 

  • Losing one’s job
  • Getting divorced or going through a breakup
  • Getting married
  • Being discriminated against
  • Having a child
  • Moving
  • Getting a promotion or raise
  • The death of a family member
  • A diagnosis of serious illness

Since these events are often normal parts of the life cycle, it is clear stress is a normal part of life. But how much is too much? Stress reduction is surely a multimillion dollar industry, when you consider everything from antacids and heart surgery to self-help seminars and meditation gurus.


Health and Psychological Issues Caused by Stress:

Few people will deny being stressed at least once in their lifetime, but for many, stress can be ongoing and unbearable. Chronic stress can contribute to a myriad of mental health and physical health issues. Research has linked high stress levels to:

  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Reduced or increased appetite
  • Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol
  • Diminished physical health
  • Decreased productivity and enjoyment at work
  • Decreased intimacy
  • Migraine headaches and other physical complaints
  • Depression
  • Ulcer, heart attack, stroke


How Therapy Can Help with Stress

Yes, stress is a normal part of life. Without it, our lives would be dreary and dull, and we would never really know what we are capable of. But when the stress of life leads to drug abuse, chronic physical ailments or pain, an absence of pleasure or relaxation in life, lost sleep, lost weight, or other significant changes for the worse, it is likely time to seek help. Some people may avoid asking for help, believing that in our modern, rapid-paced culture, "handling it all" on one’s own is a must. But in fact, everyone needs some assistance in managing stress at times. Soldiers, astronauts, politicians, actors, athletes, teachers and yes, even therapists--just about anyone you can think of--all seek a listening ear, some sage advice, aid with a difficult task or decision, or an opportunity for a little R&R if they are feeling overstressed.


Some will also seek a therapist. Traditional psychotherapy stopped short of teaching stress management skills directly, but today, most therapists know a few good stress reducers and can help you learn them relatively quickly. Since stress affects body, mind, and emotions, reducing stress can occur on these levels as well. For example:



  • Reality checking negative thoughts and catastrophic thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Planning in advance
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Focusing on the positive
  • Meditation /Focusing on breathing



  • Deep breathing
  • A long hot bath
  • Exercise
  • Dancing



  • Laughing, crying, screaming at the sky
  • Artistic endeavors
  • Talking with a friend or confidant
  • Doing anything you really enjoy


Stress from Perfectionism - Case Example

Ben, 47, recently suffered a minor heart attack and was told by his doctor to reduce his level of stress. He runs his own business with a budget of over ten million dollars, and is doing well financially but it never seem to be enough. His large family, two homes, and some old debts take much of his income, but money doesn’t seem to be the issue. Ben feels angry a lot, and feels separated from his family, though he knows they love him. In therapy, Ben discusses his drive to achieve, and soon accepts the suggestion that he is something of a perfectionist. Soon, he uncovers an intense anxiety about letting down his father, whose own business acumen was such that Ben feels he’d have to “conquer the world” to ever please dad.  In the short term, the therapist teaches Ben to relax through meditation and some other exercises. In the long term, he helps Ben come to terms with his father’s disappointment, and begin to accept himself whether he conquers the world or not.


Stress from Insecure Future - Case Example

Sonia, 23, feels overworked. She has little money, and what she has she spends on beer, to drink herself to sleep. She is often so “stressed-out” she can’t sleep even half-drunk, and goes to the gym until all hours. She sometimes collapses at work, falling further behind, stressing her out even more. She cannot fathom what her future is. In therapy, she reveals a serious coffee habit (measured in pots, not cups, per day) and an artistic bent that got her a bachelor in fine arts. After demonstrating some simple relaxation techniques (deep breathing, positive imagery, etc) the therapist identifies a few problem areas and helps Sonia articulate short and long term goals. They then begin together to identify the steps required to achieve these goals. Sonia agrees to abstain from alcohol and coffee, and is soon on a healthy schedule, taking masters level art classes, and saving away a little cash.


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Last updated: 03-25-2015


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Easing Anxiety
Presented by Laurie Moore, Ph.D.