Millions of people around the UK experience stress which is damaging to our mental health and wellbeing. Stress is difficult to avoid, with many areas of modern life involving sometimes overwhelming demands, particularly at school and work. At some point in the last year, 74% of us have felt so stressed that we have felt unable to cope (Mental Health Foundation).
Stress causes a surge of hormones in the body designed to enable us deal with pressures or threats – this is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Once the pressure or threat has been removed, the stress hormone levels usually return to normal. However, if placed under constant stress, these hormones will remain in the body leading to symptoms such as anxiety and low mood.
There are stress management steps and strategies that can be employed to help ease stress and its associated symptoms. Below are some things you can try yourself. We have also included some further reading and resources that include signposting for professional help, if you are feeling overwhelmed.
One: Recognise when stress becomes a problem
Connecting physical and emotional signals to the pressures you’re facing is important. According to the Mental Health charity MIND, physical warnings of stress can include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Panic attacks
- Blurred eyesight or sore eyes
- Sleep problems
- Muscle aches and headaches
- Chest pains and high blood pressure
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Feeling sick, dizzy or fainting
- Sudden weight gain or weight loss
- Developing rashes or itchy skin
- Changes to your period or menstrual cycle
- Existing physical health problems getting worse
Emotional warnings can include:
- Irritable, angry, impatient or wound up
- Over-burdened or overwhelmed
- Anxious, nervous or afraid
- Like your thoughts are racing and you can't switch off
- Unable to enjoy yourself
- Uninterested in life
- Like you've lost your sense of humour
- A sense of dread
- Worried or tense
- Neglected or lonely
- Existing mental health problems getting worse
Consider the things in your life that are causing you stress and sort them according to issues you have control over, and issues you don’t. Make a plan to address the issues you can influence. This might involve setting yourself realistic expectations and prioritising essential commitments. Set boundaries and say no to things you don’t have capacity to take on, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask for help.
Two: Consider where you can make changes
Are you taking on too much? Could you delegate some tasks or responsibilities to someone else? Often, we try to do everything at once which makes us feel more stressed, so you may need to prioritise things and seek additional support for areas that feel overwhelming.
Three: Build and use your support network
We’ve all been through stressful periods in life. Opening up to close friends and family will help you feel less alone, and they may be able to offer help and practical advice that can support you in managing stress. You may also want to consider joining a club or trying something new, this will help expand your social network and explore your interests. Getting involved in social activities you enjoy can change your perspective and have a big impact on your mood.
Four: Eat a healthy diet
Eating healthily and getting enough nutrients has many proven benefits. It improves our overall mental and physical wellbeing and also helps to regulate hormones which is particularly important for managing stress.
Five: Cut down or cut out smoking and drinking
It is common for people to increase how much they drink and smoke when dealing with stress. Although these may seem to reduce tension in the short term, they actually make problems worse. Alcohol and nicotine can increase feelings of anxiety and lead to more serious, long term health issues.
Moving our bodies helps to manage the effects of stress by producing endorphins that boost your mood. Although it may be more difficult to motivate yourself when you’re stressed, as little as 10-20 minutes of walking a day can make a massive difference to your overall mental and physical wellbeing.
Seven: Take time out
When managing stress, we often start to neglect our needs. It is important to prioritise yourself, practice self-care and allow yourself time to relax. In order to reduce stress levels, it is vital to strike a balance between responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself.
Eight: Lastly, be kind to yourself
Stress and it’s associated symptoms of anxiety, low mood and feeling overwhelmed can damage our self-image and mental wellbeing. Try to keep things in perspective and avoid negative self-talk. Focus on positive things in your life and write down things you feel grateful for. If negative feelings do not subside and they are impacting your mental health, it is important to seek professional help.