Whether you choose to use medication or not, we all need practical methods to cope with stress. In today’s society, we are bombarded with hundreds of stressors even before lunch. Some might say they yearn for a world without stress. Think twice about that…

Believe it or not, some stress is actually a good thing. This study proposes that short-term stress is an “under-appreciated survival mechanism” that helps prepare us to deal with challenges. (1)

Benefits of Short-Term Stress

Think about when you first learned to drive. Pretty stressful, right? Especially with your teacher in the passenger seat, watching–your–every–move. And maybe even a couple back-seat drivers telling you what to do. But after the relatively short learning period is over, you’re equipped to deal with the challenges of driving. Plus you get the freedom to drive on your own – maybe even take a little road-trip to find a rainbow…

Cope with stres with a little Short Term Stress.

So then, how can we challenge ourselves in a safe environment & still get the benefits of a little short-term stress? And when I say a little, I don’t use that term lightly. I know from battling bipolar disorder naturally, even ‘good’ stress can get to be too much. Here are 5 methods to sharpen your coping skills without adding too much stress to your life…

Method 1: Art Therapy

Art Therapy got its start some 70 years ago (in the 1940s) by the pioneering efforts of Margaret Naumburg. It’s used most extensively in hospital psychiatric wards and in psychiatric outpatient settings and yet is still under-utilized. (2) However, the effectiveness of Art Therapy is well documented. (3) There are many Art Therapists in private practice that treat patients in a one-on-one or group setting.

What is Art Therapy?

Art Therapy sessions can be open or guided. Cara Levitt, a registered & board certified Art Therapist & founder of Draw It Out Art Therapy, uses a plethora of methods to help guide her clients. As an example, she asked one of her clients to write down all the negative things in her life, including people who violated her trust. To symbolize how she could re-purpose these experiences, she had the client tear up the paper in pieces and then made recycled paper with them. Sound fun?

While you may think you could do this on your own, I’ve found that it can be difficult following through with it (and I love art!) Exhibit A. “The Endless Cycle of Renewal”, pictured below, is my attempt to show how I felt fragmented after my first manic episode with psychosis. I was 24; thought I knew who I was, and then all of a sudden my life & personality felt as if it had shattered into pieces. To learn more about how I was diagnosed with bipolar, check out this article.

Example of Art Therapy to Cope with Stress: Endless Cycle of Renewal

Benefits of Art Therapy

Back to our main idea… Remember that key point about short-term stress? Making art along with a therapist adds a little bit of stress in a safe environment. This experience may help you to open up more to your friends & family about your struggles in life. It definitely helps me to be more open with my husband.

Drawing & painting have always helped me to express myself when I can’t find the words to explain how I’m feeling. But it wasn’t until I was 15 that I experienced Art Therapy for the first time. It was during my first hospitalization for mental illness (before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.) Art Therapy added a new dimension to my art; the therapist would ask questions, but the questions were about the art, rather than my feelings. This made it seem less invasive than other forms of therapy.

Talking about the ‘art’ also helps me to process the emotions & circumstances that inspired me to create it; thus giving me a better understanding of myself. Art Therapy has also given me more confidence and has opened up more opportunities to share more with my therapist, family & friends.

Cope with Stress with Art Therapy

How Art Therapy helps me cope with stress:

  • adds a new dimension to artistic expression
  • less invasive because the therapist asks questions about the art
  • having a set appointment helps me stay committed to using this coping skill
  • provides a safe environment to open up about emotions & experiences

As time goes on I’m realizing that rather than viewing myself as being fragmented (as in “The Endless Cycle of Renewal” pictured above), there are many different aspects of my personality that I have come to appreciate. In our recent trip to Baltimore, we visited the American Visionary Art Museum where my husband took this pic through a kaleidoscope which aptly depicts this renewed sense of self…

Self Acceptance to Cope with Stress.

Can you tell yet how much I love art & self-expression?/! There are 4 more methods though to sharpen our coping skills…

Method 2: Neurofeedback Therapy

Much like a heart monitor measures your pulse, neurofeedback devices use sensors placed on the scalp to measure your brain activity through EEG (electroencephalogram) frequencies. Then depending on the parameters set by the therapist (usually a psychologist), real-time data gives feedback through video or sound to reward frequencies associated with relaxed attention and suppress frequencies associated with under- or over-arousal. The goal of neurofeedback training (also known as EEG biofeedback) is to help the client develop skills to self-regulate their brain activity – more coping skills!

What is Neurofeedback Therapy like?

In my personal experience with neurofeedback therapy, this is how it worked: the psychologist first places the sensors on your scalp. Then you’re asked to select from various different user experiences or ‘games’ that are used to provide the feedback – I usually chose an experience that appeared to be an outdoor park setting. The therapist then will ask you to relax and focus on the computer screen.

Neurofeedback Therapy to Cope with Stress

As long as I stayed present & didn’t let my mind wander to things in the past or the future, I was able to keep within the parameters set and was rewarded with sound & video feedback. In my case the reward was birds chirping, trees & flowers would grow, and the overall scene would appear sunny & the fog would dissipate. If I started to lose focus the flowers would begin to shrivel up and the overall scene became cloudy. Each session usually lasts about an hour. I would often begin to nod off before each session was complete. My psychologist said it was evidence of learning – no wonder I always fell asleep in algebra, ha!

What Possible Results Can Be Achieved?

Seriously though, after a few months of neurofeedback therapy, I became allergic to the prescribed medication used to regulate my moods. After having to abruptly stop the meds, I was so thankful that my psychiatrist was agreeable to investigating other alternatives.

For another year, I continued neurofeedback therapy and noticed a marked difference in the way I was handling stress. Rather than excessively worrying or brooding about negative past experiences (a possible symptom of PTSD), I was able to stay more focused in each present situation. And I’m not the only one who has seen benefits from neurofeedback therapy. In a 2013 study it was noted that neurofeedback therapy increased calmness in those suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) (4)

Cope with Stress with Neurofeedback Therapy

How Neurofeedback Therapy helps me cope with stress:

  • allowed me to discontinue psychiatric medications while under my doctor’s care
  • improved my ability to handle stressful situations by training me to stay present & focused
  • improved my overall tolerance for stress by training me to manage each situation better

While Neurofeedback and Art Therapy are under-utilized and not well-known, almost everyone enjoys some time in Nature. While maybe not considered therapy in a traditional sense, let’s see how this might help in managing stress.

Method 3: Time in Nature

Almost everyone has experienced how a brief jaunt in nature can boost your mood & help you cope with stress. But can it really help us handle stress better? And is it the physical activity that helps, or something else? While some may argue that the answers to these questions are obvious, a little bit of concrete data may help solidify the argument.

Patagonia may be the best place ever to take a walk in nature and cope with stress.
Patagonia sealed the deal for me – the Aysén region may be the best place ever to take a walk in nature. More about that in a moment…

 

For those needing concrete data, in a recent study mobile EEG software (like that used in Neurofeedback Therapy) was used to measure the emotional experience of a group of walkers. (5) They were asked to walk for about 25 minutes through three different types of urban environments including a green space setting. The results?

At around only 10 minutes, walking through the green space setting had a restorative effect – lower frustration levels, increased meditation, and reduced arousal – all things needed to cope with stress. But wait, what about just looking at nature?

Is Physical Activity the Key?

There’s a study for that too. (6) College students were exposed to photographic scenes of either nature or buildings. Results showed that only the nature scenes enhanced their vitality. Actually being in nature though still had the most positive affects for coping with stress. One of the study’s authors Dr. Richard Ryan, Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester, argues that just being outside in nature for 20 minutes a day is enough to boost our vitality. (7)

Are you convinced yet? While this is proof enough for me that nature can help our brains to recover & cope with stress, maybe you’d still like to hear a personal experience? Oh yes, back to Patagonia…

Kayaking the marble caves in Patagonia to cope with stress.

Everywhere you turn, the unadulterated landscape is a feast for your eyes – meadows, valleys, lakes, mountains. The weather however can be rather temperamental. My husband and I visited in late December which is the beginning of their ‘summer’. We traversed the area to see the confluence of the Baker and Neff rivers, journeyed via boat to see the Laguna San Rafael (known for being the tidewater glacier nearest the equator,) and kayaked the magnificent Marble Caves (aka Capillas de Mármol pictured above.)

It was an experience of a lifetime which required a lot of forethought & planning. While I highly recommend planning a trip like this to cope with stress (look out for a separate post with details on our adventures there), the studies referenced above emphasize that there may be more benefit to incorporating nature into our daily routines. Let’s consider…

How to Get the Most Benefits

Take a break: A 10 minute walk in a nearby green space, sitting in a work atrium or courtyard, or simply looking at a view of green space from your window may give you the resilience needed to cope with stress on a hectic day.

Make it a routine: Walk in nature at least three times a week to experience the benefits. Short, frequent hikes are actually more beneficial than long, occasional ones. (8)

‘Pepper it’ throughout your day: Desktop background images, mobile phone sound notifications, background music, photos on your desk, on your fridge, in the restroom… you get the ‘picture’. Include a little bit of nature all around you to remind you of these beautiful gifts created for us.

On to method 4, Talk Therapy, a more traditional approach for sharpening our coping skills…

Method 4: Talk Therapy

Talking to help cope with stress.
These puffins look as if they are deep in conversation. Not much to do with talk therapy but PUFFINS! Yup, a little bit of nature to brighten your day…see what I did there 😉

 

Talk therapy, also called psychotherapy, is an important component to consider in managing bipolar disorder because it may “hasten the recovery from depressive episodes and prevent new mood episodes.” It also may help to “improve functioning and quality of life” (9). Whereas treatment with medication alone was associated with “disappointingly low rates of remission (, ), high rates of recurrence (, ), residual symptoms (), and psychosocial impairment ().”

Benefits of Individual Therapy

There are many different types of talk therapy so for this method we will focus on individual therapy. Because of the intimate supportive setting individual therapy provides, I feel more free to talk openly. Also of note, a private environment like this is especially important for those suffering from shame or traumatic events. As I mentioned earlier, I was hospitalized early-on in life for mental illness which included a diagnosis of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) So for me, working with a therapist on a One-on-One basis was very helpful. But it did take some time to find the right therapist.

What’s Needed For Success?

According to Clinical Psychologist Dr. Thomas Quinlan, PsyD, one of the most important aspects of a successful therapeutic relationship “is the connection and comfort level between the client and the therapist. If for any reason the client does not feel comfortable, they should seek help somewhere else.”

Find a collaborative & supportive team to help cope with stress.

Finding a Collaborative Relationship

Ever feel bad about using a different hair stylist? But you still switched, right? Physical appearance is an important part of who we are. So then, how much more important is finding the right therapist to help hone your coping skills?

Dr. Quinlan (quoted earlier) adds, “Too often, people will either continue in a therapeutic relationship because they do not want to hurt the “therapist” feelings. Some may avoid seeking help all-together because they had a “bad” experience with a therapist in the past.” He stresses that “the first session lays the foundation for an honest & open collaborative relationship.”

To get the most out of your first session, get your free downloadable Collaborative Relationship Checklist (coming soon.) It includes questions to help you determine if you’ve found the right therapist, health coach or physician. It’s so important to find the right person who will work along with you in your journey. Remember, better health is possible!

Cope with Stress with One-on-One Talk Therapy

How One-on-One Talk Therapy helps me cope with stress:

  • provides a safe & intimate environment to discuss past trauma
  • improves ability to identify & manage moods
  • builds confidence by learning to manage stress better

Individual therapy is only one aspect of Talk Therapy. Now let’s consider how Group Therapy may help to sharpen your coping skills.

Method 5: Group Therapy

Group therapy is similar to real life, but on a much smaller scale. It’s still a safe environment like individual therapy. But group therapy may be accompanied by a little more short-term stress. But that’s OK; remember, a little bit of stress can better prepare you to face similar challenges in the future.

Benefits of Group Therapy

During group therapy, you get the opportunity to work through issues with other people that even have similar struggles. Dr. Irvin D. Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Stanford University’s School of Medicine, noted that group therapy may influence change & healing because of eleven therapeutic factors. One of which is universality which helps group members realize they are not alone in their impulses, problems, and other issues. Because of the universality of a group experience, this can also promote a catharsis release of suppressed emotions. By disclosing such feelings to group members this can further promote healing.

Group Talk Therapy to cope with stress. Almost everything can be more fun if shared with a group.
Almost everything can be more fun if shared with a group, like group talk therapy.

Secrets to Success in Group Therapy

It should be noted that for some people there needs to be a combo of both individual & group therapy. Dr. Quinlan (referenced above) advises that, “Group therapy with all of its benefits, can also bring up issues that may be difficult to discuss with others. Often times working with the group leader in individual therapy may provide some clarity on a particular issue; allowing that person to further enrich their experience in group therapy.”

Cope with Stress with Group Talk Therapy

How Group Talk Therapy helps me cope with stress:

  • provides a safe & intimate environment to discuss past trauma
  • improves ability to identify & manage moods
  • builds confidence by learning to manage stress better

In Review

  • Express yourself through art and maybe even seek out an Art Therapist.
  • Look into Neurofeedback Therapy, especially for those suffering with PTSD.
  • Spend some time in nature, even if it’s simply looking out the window.
  • Talk – one-on-one or in a group setting. Put yourself out there & be heard. You may realize that you’re not alone, afterall.

These are some ways that have helped me to cope with stress but I want to hear from YOU! Show me your art, your walk in nature, your best friend, whatever it is that helps you cope with stress! Tag @yourpowerofreason and use #stressismyfriend. I’m anxiosly awaiting your posts so help a sister out 🙂

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