ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Apr 25, 2011

Stress is Not the Problem

Last week I heard one of my favorite radio talk show hosts say ‘Stress will kill you!’ I thought that cannot be true. If it were true, every serious athletic would be either sick or dead! The whole idea of training to get stronger is to expose oneself to stress beyond what is normal, whether it be physical, mental or emotional. In order to get stronger, one must experience stress. And then, and this is the other hand clapping, and then let the body or mind or emotions have down time to respond to that stress. It’s like the body saying, ‘If you are going to make me run 400 meters that fast, I’d better get stronger so that it won’t be stressful.’

The problem comes when the recovery time is not comparable to the stress. That is probably why counseling programs stress relaxation techniques—because usually clients come in stressed out because they don’t have recovery time equivalent to the stress they are experiencing. It could be a stressful relationship, loss of a job, an intense fear, or whatever; constant stress will make you sick or even kill you. On the other hand constant ‘down time’ will do the same—without stress, we do not grow and thrive. Life must be a continual rhythm of stress—recovery—stress—recovery.

One of the truths of counseling is that although we do not always have control over what happens to us, we do have control how we respond to those events. We can choose how we interpret any given stress; then a response follows. Usually this advice is given when someone is experiencing excess stress in order to get some recovery time by reframing the client’s interpretation of the source of the stress. But it also is just as true about a person who is feeling bored or depressed. In that case, however, I would suggest the client engage in some activity that would cause stress. Why does a runner put themselves in situation where they experience tremendous stress? There’s life and excitement and energy in that experience.

A few years ago just as the gun sounded at the start of a marathon, a runner next to me was heard to say, ‘Surely there is some international torture commission that should look into this. And we actually paid good money to do this to ourselves.’ Anxiety and excitement have identical blood chemistry profiles. The difference is how the feeling is interpreted and how much control we feel we have over it.

Reframing a source of stress is basically a way of claiming some control over it. There are also other ways of taking charge of the effects of stress. A student I once counseled was having such anxiety over the thought of finals, her relationship with her boyfriend and her parents and a whole laundry list of stressors that she could not sleep very well or concentrate on studying. I suggested that throughout the day she keep a list of all of the things that made her anxious. Then in the evening, say from 7:00-7:30, she have a stress session. During those 30 minutes, she tries to make herself as anxious as possible using her list of stressors. At the end of the time she was to put the list in a special place and tell the stressors she would get back to them the next day. It worked. Of course the impact of the stressors dissipated and she had a hard time making herself anxious any more.

For us as counselors, we must also be sensitive to this rhythm of stress/recovery in our own daily schedule, our weekly activities and our monthly plans. We may think that we can work with one client after another with only a few minutes between them. In fact I worked with one supervisor who said that ten minutes should be adequate time to do the paperwork before working with another client. Ten minutes of recovery after 50 minutes experiencing the stress of focused attention with a client is hardly adequate recovery. It compromises our skills as well as our emotions, minds and bodies. It would be okay occasionally if required, but to build a schedule like that is guaranteed to result in burnout. Our bodies, minds and emotions will force us to take recovery time. Just like an athlete, we must schedule recovery time activities as intentionally as we schedule clients. And the recovery time must be just as intense as the stress time. Such an awareness should be included in every counseling program.

Consider the implications of this for the spiritual dimension of counseling. Everything I read about including spirituality into counseling seems to focus on eliminating stress—so-called spiritual disciplines such as meditation, breathing, even yoga, tai chi, guided visualization, etc. All seem to be concerned with helping a person experience the recovery period more intensely. However many spiritual practices are intended to intensify one’s experience of the holy—intensify stress. This indeed is the goal of such disciplines as fasting, self-flagellation, protesting an injustice such as an execution or a war, etc. Some approaches to therapy, such as behavior modification, use this stress/recovery process. How about a comparable spiritual program which intensifies a person’s sensitivity to social and economic brutalities? I realize that theories of moral or spiritual development do not move toward a goal of giving one’s life to change injustices in the world. That is why I suspect they may be more subversive (hypnotizing us) than awaking us to what is really going on around us.

As counseling programs move toward including studies of religion and spirituality into their curriculum I hope they include the study of ways of increasing stress through spirituality as well as calming the soul.

And all of us counselors can learn this from world class athletes: to be the best counselor I can be, I must experience both stress and recovery. We must consciously plan our lives with this rhythm in mind. And if the recovery is adequate, we will function at a higher level than before the initial stress.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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