Stress is a feeling we experience when we are contending with more than we can manage. When we are stressed, our body responds as though we are in danger. It releases adrenaline and other hormones, causing an increased heart rate and breathing rate, muscle tension, and other bodily changes. This is the fight-or-flight response that serves to help the individual manage threats. However, the fight-or-flight response does not only occur in life-threatening situations. It also occurs, at less intense levels, when we encounter something unexpected, are interrupted, or frustrated. In small amounts and for brief intervals, stress can energize us and help us attain a goal, such as meeting a deadline. However, when stress is ongoing it can have deleterious effects such as physical symptoms (e.g. headaches, stomach upset) sleep disturbance, and feelings of anxiety.
Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in the person’s life. Often the stressors are obvious — work demands, relationship difficulties, financial strain. But less obvious situations, referred to as daily hassles, can also cause stress. Daily hassles can include events like contending with traffic, not having enough time to do things, or having difficult neighbours. Even positive events can be stressful, such as getting married, having a child, or starting a new job. Once the individual’s stressors are identified, therapy focuses on helping to devise strategies to deal with them. Such strategies may include changing the way the person manages the stressor, changing one’s attitude toward the stressor, or, if possible, avoiding the stressor. Therapy can also help to reduce the physical arousal that is part of the fight-or-flight stress response.