Does Stress Counseling Work?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated June 6, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

It can be natural to undergo a spike in stress levels from time to time, whether experiencing a high-stakes work project or a significant life change like having a baby. However, when you feel stressed every day, you may be experiencing chronic stress, which can have negative effects on your physical health and significant long-term mental health impacts. Even if stress is not a chronic condition, you may benefit from learning stress management techniques to relieve stress in your daily life.

Techniques to manage stress

Stress counseling can help clients address chronic and temporary high-stress situations, as well as promote health and wellbeing. Stress counselors trained in various stress reduction and relaxation techniques can assist you in understanding the causes for your stress and mitigating your body’s stress response.

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What is stress?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stress as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” Stress involves worry and physiological response to an external cause. It differs from anxiety, a mental health condition involving internal distress, fear, and anxiety without a cause or external inciting event. However, stress does show some characteristics of anxiety, and it can be linked to the development of anxiety in the long term.

Potential mental health symptoms

Stress occurs in the nervous system, releasing chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline that keep the body safe in case of health emergencies. However, when these stress chemicals remain for the long term, they can cause various physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, inflammation, and headaches. Counseling for stress is one way to work through chronic stress and symptoms of stress that may lead to these risks. 

Stress in the short and long term can result in the following impacts or symptoms: 

  • The development of mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or substance use disorders
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate, which may result in a heightened risk for heart disease and cardiac conditions
  • Emotional eating of comfort foods high in sugar, fat, salt, and carbohydrates
  • Diabetes
  • Weight fluctuations 
  • Insomnia, sleep difficulties, or a change in sleep patterns
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Muscle loss or a decrease in muscle tone and strength
  • Stomach ulcers
  • suppressed immune system
  • A lower sex drive
  • Disrupted menstrual cycles and irregular periods
  • Fertility challenges and infertility
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Embarrassment and shame
  • Irritability
  • New or increased use of substances 
  • Development of unhealthy coping mechanisms like gambling, compulsive pornography use, or reassurance seeking 
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Therapy for stress management

Stress management therapy is often an umbrella term for stress management modalities, including talk therapy and stress management mindfulness practices. It may also refer to methods for addressing physical symptoms, reducing stress levels, adjusting the stress response, and managing the mental health conditions associated with chronic stress.

Meeting with a mental health professional trained in one or more of the following techniques or types of stress therapy can be the first step to addressing how stress impacts your life and managing stress. 

Mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy (MBSR)

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a therapeutic method developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine who incorporates theories of Buddhism and traditional Eastern medicine into his practices. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is grounded in mindfulness techniques that emphasize grounding yourself in the present and recognizing sensations in your body and thoughts that pass through your mind without judgment. 

The formal MBSR program developed by Kabat-Zinn and implemented by various practitioners nationwide lasts for eight weeks and can be a significant time commitment. Participants can attend weekly group or individual counseling sessions and an eight-hour retreat near the program’s conclusion. They may also be asked to devote 45 minutes daily to implementing the mindfulness techniques they are learning. You can also choose to attend a five-day intensive residential version of an MBSR program.

Even if the time commitment for the formal MBSR program is not feasible for you, you can still work on understanding and using MBSR techniques with your counselor. You may try a relaxation technique like meditation, deep breathing, body scanning, mindful eating, yoga, or other methods of reconnecting your body and mind. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, also called “talk therapy,” is often considered the “gold standard” for addressing various mental health and life challenges, including stress and its associated symptoms. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the idea that changing negative thought patterns and attitudes can result in behavioral changes that may significantly improve one’s life and mental state.

With cognitive-behavioral therapy, your therapist might first identify ineffective or unhealthy thoughts or assumptions (i.e., “If I don’t work twelve hours a day, I will lose my job”). Those thoughts can then be linked to behaviors (overworking) that may be causing stress. Once the negative pattern has been identified and understood, the unhealthy attitudes can be replaced with more beneficial thoughts (“Working is important, but life is about more than work”). Those thoughts can translate into healthy behaviors (better work-life balance), resulting in a positive life change (less stress). Though it can be difficult to change negative thought patterns, CBT-based stress management has helped many people improve their overall mental health, well-being, and ability to manage stressful events.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy combines the principles of mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive-behavioral therapy into one comprehensive therapeutic approach for reducing stress and symptoms of other mental health conditions. 

MBCT uses mindfulness techniques and relaxation training, primarily mindfulness meditation, to help clients understand that their thoughts and emotions are one component of their lives and do not necessarily control their behavior. It helps them find new strategies to manage stress in and outside of counseling. A counselor trained in MBCT can help you keep negative thoughts from progressing or encouraging unhealthy behaviors. 

MBCT counselors can help you reduce stress by teaching you techniques to calm the body’s stress response and develop ways to process maladaptive thoughts so that they no longer lead to high levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream. MBCT can also involve other relaxation techniques for addressing and managing stress, including meditation, deep breathing, and other coping strategies. 

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Find a therapist for stress relief 

If you are seeking a counselor specifically trained in stress management techniques, you might benefit from online counseling through a platform like BetterHelp. Online counseling can connect you to thousands of trained and licensed counselors with educational backgrounds in multiple techniques, including mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. 

Online therapy for stress

Online counseling may be helpful for those who experience stress related to setting appointments, commuting, parking, and organizing a schedule around in-person counseling. With an online counselor, you can meet with a professional from home and choose between phone, video, or chat sessions.  

Online delivery of these various therapeutic methods to address stress may be as effective as traditional in-person counseling sessions. One study found that an online cognitive behavioral therapy program significantly reduced symptoms of stress in participants. If you can’t find a therapist in your local area who has trained in the specific stress reduction technique, online therapy may be a convenient option. 

Takeaway

Stress might not seem serious and may happen occasionally due to life events or a particularly stressful situation, but chronic stress can significantly impact your brain and body. Improving your relaxation response through techniques like mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can help you learn stress relief strategies and reduce overall stress levels. Consider reaching out to a provider to get started.

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