How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Helped Me Deal with Stress

Stress is perfectly normal; some people even thrive on it. But if it’s affecting you to the point that it never goes away, it’s time to take action. Although it might seem like something that’s purely in your head, stress is as real as any physical problem and can severely affect your mental and physical health.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) involves learning how to manage your problems by changing your mindset and how you behave. It’s based around the idea that you can prevent yourself from intense stress by breaking down your problems and dealing with them rationally. Just before the summer exam period of 2018 I was entirely overwhelmed with stress and exhaustion. Both my uni life and personal life seemed out of my control. I tried to convince myself that this was purely exam stress and not an ongoing problem, but I knew this wasn’t the case. I was in complete despair at having no idea how to help myself, and so, after a lot of panicking, I went to my GP. They strongly recommended I look into CBT, specifically the programmes offered by the Leeds Mental Wellbeing Service, which treats anxiety disorders and depressions in adults. My GP enrolled me on a six-week stress class course and I thought I would share with you here the key things I learnt from CBT.

  1. 1. Break up whatever is causing you stress – Slow. Down

    When you’re in a stressful situation your brain tends to start working overtime. Imagine your brain is like a 20-year-old computer. Keep opening up new tabs and before you know it, the computer’s crashed. Dealing with everything at once will overload your system. You’re only human and you can only deal with what’s causing you stress one issue at a time. Be reasonable and realistic with yourself. Identify and prioritise the issue that is causing you the most stress and sort this out first before moving on to minor issues. By confronting the biggest issue first, you can get it out of the way and smaller issues will become easier to deal with.

  2. 2. Talk to someone

    Admitting you can’t cope is challenging. If you’re anything like me, you may not want to talk to your loved ones for fear that they’ll start worrying about you. The saying “a problem shared is a problem halved” might sound like a cliché, but it’s true. Get your problems off your chest, whether that’s starting with writing them down in a diary and then moving on to discussing it with your close friends or going to see a doctor. Verbalising or seeing your problems written down is a good way of understanding and processing them, which is the first step towards understanding how you can minimise the stress that they cause.

  3. 3. Get out of your rut

    Even something as simple as a change of scenery or a new morning routine can help you step back and see what is causing your problems in a different light. Routine is important in maintaining structure in your life and helping you feel like you have control. But don’t punish yourself for breaking that routine and changing up your life for the better by trying something new.

  4. 4. Reduce your caffeine intake

    Don’t worry, I’m not going to say you aren’t allowed your morning coffee ever again. But caffeine can have a huge impact on your central nervous system. Too much caffeine increases feelings of nervousness, agitation, and can disrupt your sleeping pattern. Cutting out caffeine completely when your body is so used to it can be dangerous, so wean yourself off slowly. And don’t drink that can of Red Bull at 2am when you’re trying to get an essay done that should’ve been finished a week ago. Just go to bed and try again in the morning!

  5. 5. Retrain your breathing

    Something as simple as this can prove to be an effective method of calming yourself down in a stressful situation. Take a breath in and think ‘one’. Breathe out and think ‘relax’. Take a breath in and think ‘two’. Breathe out and think ‘relax’. Repeat this up to 10 and then back down to one. Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth helps to control your breathing. It might also help to place one of your hands on your chest and the other on your stomach. Being able to slow down your breathing like this helps slow your body down and retrain your focus, allowing you to think more rationally in stressful situations.

  6. 6. Progressive Muscular Relaxation

    This is one of the most helpful things I learnt from my stress control sessions. The idea behind PMR is that through controlling your breathing and tensing then relaxing your muscles, you become aware of the way stress impacts your body. I try to listen to a PMR recording every night. You’ll be surprised how soothing it is to listen to a lovely Glaswegian woman tell you to tense and relax your buttocks. Her words, not mine!

  7. 7. Challenge your thoughts

    It’s hard to think rationally when you are under so much stress but ask yourself some questions the next time you start to panic. What are the chances something bad will happen? What is the worst thing that could happen? Am I right to think that something bad is going to happen? Is it worth stressing about this issue? Will this problem matter in X amount of time?

    Imagine you’re trying to win a court case against your problem. What evidence do you have that this problem is going to be the end of the world? Discredit those thoughts as much as you can by making yourself think rationally about each aspect of them.

At the risk of sounding pessimistic, there is no magic cure for stress. It won’t go away by itself. You must be motivated in wanting to learn how to control your stress. A lot of these ideas I have shared may seem easy, but it’s keeping up with these techniques and remembering them when you’re at your lowest point that is the hardest part. Not everything you do to try and control your stress will work, and different things work for different people. The most important thing to remember when controlling your stress is that you have to take an active approach and be patient for the results. Even now I still have to remind myself to keep applying the practices I learnt way back in the summer. Don’t let it get to the point where you physically and mentally can’t cope any more. Go to your GP for help, no matter how scary that sounds. Believe in yourself! No matter what you feel, you are ALWAYS in control!


Words by Hannah Martin.

Edited by Sarah Goswami.