stressed woman

Mick Gillingham, Clinical Director of VitalityHealth partner CBT Services, offers suggestions for a less stressful life.

In my job as a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, I see a range of people from all walks of life who are clearly suffering from different levels of stress. These clients are usually with me for a number of hour-long sessions, and my aim is to give them new life-skills that will help them to deal with their current anxieties – and prepare them for when the same worries crop up again in the future.

While both men and women worry equally about such things as work, money and not having enough support, women typically tend to be more stressed about relationships and the sense of being included – be it with their partners, kids, colleagues, relatives or friends. When a woman feels as if there’s been some kind of breakdown in a relationship, that can often be a trigger point for stress.

If the issue causing you stress is at home – if there’s a male involved you can be sure you’re going to have two people worrying and coping with stress in completely opposite ways! It’s typical for men to isolate and withdraw – to try and forget about a problem – whereas women are more likely to want to talk about it and come up with a solution to the problem.

On the surface, it can therefore seem that women deal with stress in a better, more functional way than men. But there’s a catch: wanting to talk about the cause of whatever it is that’s bothering you all the time can also cause you to ruminate, to think long and hard about the problem at hand. This can then start to become dysfunctional because it’s so easy then to slip into thinking of the worst possible scenario – when it would be far healthier to take a clear, balanced view of the situation. It’s almost a kind of pessimism, a glass half-empty approach that can eclipse the original cause of the stress, bringing with it sleepless nights that are going to leave you feeling even less able to deal with the problem… that’s often when I come in, to help cope with a vicious cycle that can be very hard to break.

“Stress is natural and happens to all of us – so don’t worry about being worried”

– Mick Gillingham, Clinical Director of CBT Services

When I’m working through problems with a client, the first thing I’ll look to do is ‘stabilise’ them. It’s the term CBT practitioners use to describe getting regular, reassuring normality into their everyday life. This would involve making sure that you are getting enough sleep, eating three meals a day and not looking for refuge in unhealthy coping methods, such as a few glasses of wine in the evening or an entire box of chocolates in your desk drawer. It’s strange but in my experience very true: get your life on an even, healthy keel and a lot of the worries, the ruminating and the other side-effects you’re experiencing can actually dissolve anyway – because you’ve had time to process what’s actually making you stressed when your body is in a much calmer state.

There’s a critical mistake that many people make when they think about having therapy for a stressful issue. They get concerned that by coming to my office and analysing their problems for an hour, they’ll leave feeling worse, more stressed than when they started. That doesn’t ever happen, because your therapist will try to identify what it is that’s at the heart of your problem and will work closely with you to seek out ways in which you can fix the issue in a calm and constructive way.

This wouldn’t be simple to the point of stupidity (your therapist won’t ask: “why don’t you sit and talk to your partner?” because they’ll know that you would have already done so if you felt capable of it). What they’ll do instead is teach you how to relax and not over-analyse problems – any problems, the ones you brought to the therapy session or the ones you haven’t encountered yet – by engaging in the here and now rather than dwelling on the worst possible outcome you’ve been imagining.

Practical solutions for learning how to deal with stress can be straightforward, though: I often recommend keeping a diary and making a note anytime you feel under pressure, so later you’ll look back and remind yourself how you’ve dealt with problems in the past. Or, if you find you’re skipping the odd meal or drinking more in the evening than usual, then you’ll know it’s time to think about stabilising yourself… and reassessing your stress.

3 steps to a new stress-free you

1. Recognise

When you’re stressed, you know something’s not right but it’s hard to put your finger on it – and that in turn can make you worry even more. Relax. Stress is a normal emotion and you’re not alone. Whatever it is you’re worried about – work, money, home – may well have been blown out of proportion by a constant to-ing and fro-ing in your mind.

2. Stabilise

Once you’ve realised you’re stressed, take a look to see if anything in your lifestyle is making your problems worse – I find with my women clients a tendency to drink more evening glasses of wine than usual, or to send their blood sugar haywire by tucking into too many chocolate treats. If you find yourself living an unhealthier life than usual, cut back – and consciously focus on getting a good sleeping pattern and three healthy meals a day. Not only will this leave you with more energy, it could also stop some of the sources of your worries.

3. Inoculate

What I mean by this term is: ‘make yourself immune’ from the source of your stress so that you not only overcome it in a therapy session, but are also able to deal with it again and again without over-analysing it out of all proportions. Different techniques work for different people: keeping a diary to log stressful moments, and ways to deal with them, or just learning to live in the here and now, not in the worst case scenario playing in your head. Ultimately, stress is a natural thing that happens to all of us – so don’t worry so much about being worried!

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