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Can cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help relieve stress?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you substitute desirable responses and behavior patterns for undesirable ones, is one proven way to reduce stress. It is very important that you learn cognitive-behavioral coping skills from a professional. They include:
  • Identifying sources of stress. You can keep a stress diary in which you record stressful occasions, incidents that triggered anger or anxiety or that caused a physical response. Jot down the time of day and the circumstances that led to these feelings, then try to identify the types of events or activities that caused them. See if you can alter or avoid these circumstances.
  • Restructuring priorities. Examine your priorities and goals to determine which stressful activities or situations you can get rid of. For example, replace time-consuming unnecessary chores (like ironing) with more pleasurable activities.
  • Finding ways to balance the stress inducers you can't eliminate by including stress-reducing activities in your day. Studies have shown that such activities can positively affect your immune system.
  • Adjusting your responses to stress. Because you can't simply wish some stresses away -- for example, you can't just quit your job or walk out on your family -- you must learn how to respond to stress to reduce its effects. These include:
  1. Discussing your feelings. If you don't discuss your feelings of anger or frustration, you may feel hopeless and depressed. Becoming aware of your feelings can help you assert yourself when it's important. You can do this in a positive way, by writing a letter or calmly discussing your feelings. Asserting yourself in a negative way (yelling and behaving aggressively) is counterproductive. It's also important to learn to listen, empathize and respond to others with understanding.
  2. Keeping your perspective and looking for the positive. Think of the worst possible outcome to a situation that is stressing you and assess the likelihood of it occurring (usually small). Then, envision a positive outcome and develop a plan to achieve that outcome. It's also helpful to remember past situations that initially seemed negative but ended well.
  3. Using humor. Stress management experts often recommend that people keep a sense of humor during difficult situations. Laughing releases the tension of pent-up feelings and helps maintain your perspective on the situation.
Ruth White, MPH
Social Work
Usually, the problem with stress isn't the stressful situation itself but how we react to it. Much research has been done on ways we can change our reactions to stressful events. One successful method is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can be very useful for changing the way we think about, and react to, the events of our lives. CBT teaches people to pay attention to what they tell themselves about a stressful event and change that internal message, as well as the problematic behavior.

For example, someone who loses a job may feel anxious and stressed because he believes he's a failure and will never again find a job that fits his skills and interests. He may be afraid to look for another job, because he fears the humiliation and painful feelings he'll experience if he applies for a job and doesn't get it. CBT can teach that person to explore, understand, and change the messages he's telling himself about himself; help him see his experience in the broader context of his life; and help him learn and practice new behaviors that decrease his chronic stress, such as better time management techniques for greater success at the next job.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.