When Clients Have an Over-Attachment to Stress
Many people come to therapy seeking to reduce or manage their stress, which we often think of as an unwanted product of our environment. Once work is underway, however, clients may reveal a strong attachment to being constantly on edge. Taylor M. Ham is a marriage and family therapist specialising in stress and anxiety. To mark Stress Awareness Day 2023, she digs into the subconscious beliefs that can keep individuals stuck in a habitual stress response – and shares some gentle questions to release stressed clients from a life of angst and tension.
How many of us have felt stuck with clients who are seemingly fully engaged in session and in agreement with treatment recommendations, yet nonetheless come back week after week, as harried as they were the last, wrapped up in their current life crisis and making very little progress on their goals? If we were honest, how many of us have found ourselves stuck in a similar place?
We tend to think of stress as something we fall victim to – a product of our environment. When I work with a client who seems stuck in a never-ending stress cycle, however, I often find it more helpful to view stress like an insidiously bad habit, albeit with good intentions.
Find its Function
Habits are formed over time by feedback loops that reinforce and ingrain behavioural responses to certain triggers. Like most habits that are hard to kick, there is usually some benefit derived from the behaviour. By looking at stress and anxiety in a similar way, we can help the client identify and address the purpose that stress is serving in their lives.
The truth is that stress can feel productive. We may subconsciously believe that if we worry and fret, we are at least doing something. Life is full of uncertainties, but if we stay on alert, we feel, we will never be caught off guard. Stress may also allow us to avoid things that feel far more scary or difficult to face. Being constantly on edge may create an illusion of security.
Underneath stress there is often anxiety, and as we know, anxiety serves an important purpose in our lives. Clients may believe that it is the stress and anxiety they feel that is keeping them on task and pushing them to excel, and there may be some fear about letting that go. This tends to be true for very high achieving individuals for whom stress has been a constant companion throughout their lives. Over time, the line between the individual themselves and their all too familiar stress response becomes blurred.
Here are some questions I will ask my clients to get to the bottom of what’s keeping them stuck:
- If this stress wasn’t always there, what would you feel in its place?
- What do you think being constantly caught up in stress is allowing you to avoid?
- What would your life look like without it?
What exists in the gap between what we say we want our lives to be and the cycle of stress we find ourselves caught in? Perhaps it’s a fear of failure, the discomfort of unmet potential, or worries about not living up to the expectations of others. Or maybe it’s overwhelmingly difficult thoughts, feelings, or memories.
I love to help clients challenge the faulty beliefs they are unconsciously holding onto and learn to trust themselves. Questioning clients who feel that constant angst and tension is what allows them to stay on top of their to do list might sound like: “Maybe it’s you that is holding up all of these balls you have in the air, not your anxiety and stress.” “In fact, maybe you are accomplishing these things despite the stress you feel; not because of it?”
I will ask my clients to imagine letting go of the stress, while still moving forward in their lives. From there, we can experiment with behavioural change that builds self-confidence and trust and allows them to start moving through the world in a different way.