Psychotherapy is quite often considered to be a process which lasts for a considerable period of time. However, it does not necessarily have to be. In some cases, a focused exploration of an issue may result in greater awareness of a situation and of personal responses to it, and this may be all that is needed. Life can then just feel better.

Work stress is an example of an issue which can benefit from a short period of therapeutic work. I highlight below some of the elements and dynamics of work stress, and when help may be needed, and when perhaps not.

Stress, after all, is a normal part of life. It can give excitement, help with focus, and ultimately a sense of achievement (here it is called eustress). Indeed, without eustress life might become boring, depressing or even lack meaning.

Various types of stress are outlined below

  • Eustress, as mentioned above, is essentially “good stress” and can be seen as helpful for mental and emotional wellbeing
  • Acute stress is brief and temporary. It is not “good” like eustress and may cause some disturbance but may be seen as contributing to something good (e.g. exam stress which can be seen as contributing to positive outcome, like passing the exam).
  • Chronic stress occurs regularly or constantly and may leave you feeling drained and exhausted. It may include physical symptoms such as headaches.
  • Emotional stress tends to bring a greater physical reaction than chronic stress and involves a greater sense of overall distress.
  • Burnout results from prolonged chronic stress, and is often associated with lack of control, high demands being placed on an individual, unclear expectations and lack of recognition.

Stress in the workplace, though, can be seen in some ways as quite unique. It is something quite different from the forms of stress described above and may involve some or all of the following:

  • Expectations for the performance of tasks which are not matched to knowledge and abilities and which challenge a person’s ability to cope
  • Lack of support from supervisors, managers and colleagues
  • Little control over work processes

While some of these factors may be necessary short-term elements of a working environment (e.g. when there are pressures to meet deadlines), if they form part of a persistent daily pattern work stress can result.

The question arises: how do you know whether you are suffering from work stress or whether you are in the middle of a natural ebb and flow of a workplace environment?

Well, if an experience has one or more of the three features described above and is felt problematically, it is quite likely that you have entered a state of chronic stress. If not alleviated, emotional stress and burnout may follow. How long you can work under this kind of stress will depend to a large extent on your unique set of circumstances – past experiences, social support, and resilience are just three.

Is your stress acute or chronic?

  • If you feel that your stress is of an acute nature, then in all likelihood this will pass whenever the stressful event ends, with no overall negative impact on your psychological wellbeing.
  • If stress at work is persistent, pervasive and you feel a growing sense perhaps of anxiety, loss of self-confidence and/or depression then it may be time to seek help.

Psychotherapy may be able to help get to the root of the stress you are feeling.

Why for example is your reaction to stress different in this job than it has been in any other? Is there something else happening in your life that has contributed to your reactions in the work environment?

Everyone will have a unique set of circumstances and therapy and counselling can help you understand yours, including your experience of stress. In fact, by exploring stress at work, sometimes there may be something deeper which could benefit exploration, and which when resolved gives you greater resilience, a different approach to the work environment, or perhaps even an improved overall sense of wellbeing.

If work stress is troubling you, seems constant, and is beginning to affect how you feel about yourself and your relationships, why not get in touch and begin the process of unravelling what it is in your particular circumstances that has taken you along the path from eustress to those types of stress which feel less good.

Liz Jeffries is a therapist on the welldoing directory.