Stress is a sensation everyone experiences at some point. It can be sudden, intense, overwhelming and even horrible. Stress is often short-lived, such as sitting an exam, being in an accident or having a disagreement. But stress can also be a lower grade, longer-lasting problem which infiltrates every day - and, over time, puts you at higher risk of major medical conditions such as depression, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Thanks to the global health crisis, stress is currently at an all-time high. Dr Juliet McGrattan offers straightforward advice and achievable techniques for how to manage stress in your day-to-day life:
What is stress?
Stress is designed to protect you and to help you survive. When faced with a life-threatening situation you could either stay and fight or take flight and escape. This ‘fight or flight’ response triggers a cascade of chemical and hormone release in the body which rapidly prepares you to perform. Your heart rate goes up, breathing quickens, you’re super alert and ready for anything. You will rarely be faced with life-threatening situations in this day and age but sometimes your body sees things as potentially threatening and triggers the stress response anyway.
But why do two people in the same situation experience stressful events so differently? One might be overwhelmed with stress while the other remains cool as a cucumber. And why is it that, on some days, a problem can cause you huge amounts of stress but on another, you’re able to let the same issue wash over you and not stress you out at all?
This is because how stressed you feel is determined by what is going on inside you and how much you believe you can cope with the situation you are in. How you react to stress depends on a number of factors including:
Previous experience of similar situations
Life situation at that moment in time - including how much sleep you've had, where you are in your menstrual cycle and what kind of day you're having.
Signs and symptoms of stress
Stress can affect every part of your body. It might not occur to you that the flare-up in your irritable bowel or the pain in your right shoulder is coming directly from stress. Stress can cause genuine physical pain. It doesn’t mean that your doctor thinks it is in your head, only that the way to resolve the pain is to address your mental health. Physical symptoms from stress are not a sign of weakness; it's simply your body telling you it is under pressure.
Here are some of the mental and physical health symptoms that can come as a result of stress:
Mental health stress symptoms
Inability to concentrate
Disturbed sleep – trouble dropping off to sleep, frequently waking up or waking early
Loss of confidence
Physical health stress symptoms
Palpitations – your heart beating more forcefully, faster or sometimes irregularly
Weight loss or gain, often with a change in appetite
Abdominal pain, sometimes with diarrhoea or constipation
Indigestion, acid reflux and nausea
Muscle tension, eg neck and shoulder pain
Low sex drive
Skin conditions such as flare-ups of eczema or psoriasis
How to manage stress
Thankfully there is plenty you can do to address stress. It’s vital that you take steps to do so, whether you are in the middle of an intense period of stress or whether you are looking for ways to lead a stress-free life in the future.
To get started, try and do what you can to minimise the environments that are causing pressure and spend time in stress-free atmospheres, even if only for a few minutes at a time. And, more importantly in the long term, look at your personal relationship with stress, how you view it, and what you can do to increase your coping abilities and generally be less stressed by the inevitabilities of life.
The following stress-busting techniques are simple, everyday things that you can do to help you manage stress better, enabling you to grow as a person and develop the confidence that you will be calm and composed when faced with stressful situations in the future.
Here are some ways you can change your internal thoughts and external pressures to stop stress impacting on your mental and physical health:
Internal changes to manage stress
You can’t avoid stress altogether but you can improve your ability to cope with it and change the way you look at situations. The following 11 techniques take practise and need to be repeated regularly to help you build a strong mind that will be better equipped to deal with stress:
Exercise can be used as a tool to help you cope with stress. The feel-good chemicals released by the brain when you exercise vigorously give a sense of well-being and calm. Challenging yourself to reach a goal and keep going can help you to build mental resilience and self-esteem. You can then face any difficult situations in your life with more confidence. Yoga is a perfect exercise for helping you feel in control of your body rather than your body controlling you. It combines exercise with the following two techniques of breathing and meditation.
2. Learn to breathe
The ability to deep-breathe, right into your diaphragm, is an instant tool for calming yourself. Knowing you can quickly reduce the unpleasant feelings of stress by simply closing your eyes and taking deep breaths is very reassuring. It takes practise to master so spend some time each day enjoying the peace of proper deep breathing.
3. Meditation and mindfulness
It can be very challenging to sit and focus on only the present moment when you are feeling stressed, but mindfulness meditation is a skill you can learn. Being able to empty your mind of all the racing thoughts and worries, even if only for a minute or two each day, gives you mental space. It is refreshing and helps you see things more clearly. Starting your day with a short meditation will help you to cope with the stresses of the day.
Stressed out people need to rewire their brains and get rid of the fixed and limiting beliefs they have about themselves. If you think you are a ‘stress-head’, you will be a ‘stress-head’. Write down what you would rather be. For example, ‘I am calm and take stressful situations in my stride.’ Read this affirmation out loud, at least once every day, with meaning, and again when you find yourself feeling stressed. Saying it will eventually lead your brain to believe it is the truth. Speak kindly and positively to yourself. Learning you can control your thoughts is very powerful.
People only remember the bad stuff and focus on what didn’t go right instead of what went well. Keeping a journal where you write your thoughts down and always recording successes and things you are grateful for will make sure the positive things are foremost in your mind. This acts as a reminder that whatever stress there is, good things are still happening to you and you are still progressing and succeeding in life. You can write down your affirmations in your journal.
6. Connect with others
Having a community of people who support you helps you to feel calm. You know that when things aren’t going right there are people who will come to your rescue and have your back. You feel much less stressed when you have the security of colleagues, friends and family on your side. Build your support network by giving to others when they need you and don’t be afraid to ask for the same in return.
7. Learn to talk
Thankfully conversations about mental health are becoming more acceptable and normal. However, it can still be hard to share your feelings. Learning to open up and to discuss your innermost thoughts can be liberating. Other people can offer different perspectives and you discover that you aren’t alone. It’s vital to choose someone you trust. You can also consider speaking to a health professional. Talking therapies are an excellent way to understand why you think the way you do and how changing that thinking can alter the way you feel and act. Your GP can refer you.
8. Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms
It’s easy to turn to alcohol, drugs or food to comfort yourself in a time of stress. These only offer short term relief and usually make you feel worse after the effect has worn off. Bad habits quickly lead to addictions that are hard to overcome. Replace them with healthier options from this list and vitally, spend time building your confidence and belief in yourself to overcome the stresses that are weighing you down. Reach out to others to help you do this.
9. Improve your sleep
Fatigue, the inability to think straight or concentrate and other symptoms of sleep deprivation make you feel stressed. And sleep deprivation is often caused by stress. Do what you can to maximise your sleep. Wind down with screen-free time before bed and practise breathing and relaxation techniques to help you drop off. Keep your bedroom as a cool, calm haven with no reminders of the work you have yet to do lying about the place.
10. Give yourself time
Stress often comes from being rushed. Be organised, prepared and on time for things that matter to you. Allow more time than you think you need so you can fit in unexpected delays and surprises. Allow yourself time to relax, too – see the external tips that follow.
11. Prioritise yourself
Make sure you are giving yourself some time in your week. Be really strict with work-life boundaries. Schedule ‘me time’ and time to practise self-care. Half an hour in a day to write your journal, meditate and read your affirmations is time well spent. Allow time to do what you enjoy and find fun, whatever that is for you. It is not an indulgence, it is a necessity to helping you feel strong, resilient and able to deal with stress.
External changes to manage stress
It isn’t always possible to remove stressful situations from your life. Running away or hiding is rarely the best option. It is however, important to spend plenty of time in non-stressful environments. Here are 14 ways you can give your brain some respite and your body and mind the chance to relax and recharge:
Get outside for fresh air and sunlight
Spend time in nature – walking, gardening or just sitting
Be with people who make you laugh or watch a TV show that makes you giggle
Listen to or make music
Cook or bake
Get a massage
Nourish your body with healthy food and drinks – avoiding caffeine and alcohol can help
Stroke your pet
Rest – it’s OK to just take some time out when you need to
Spend time with those you love - sex is a great stress relief
Get creative - crafting, painting, whatever you might enjoy
Distract yourself – find something that absorbs you such as a good book or a film
Exercise – of whatever type you want. Exercising outdoors is more effective at reducing stress than indoor exercise
Avoid stressful situations –limit your exposure to the news and social media which can cause a great deal of stress at the moment. Steer clear of that family member that makes your blood pressure go up
When to see your doctor
If your stress is unrelenting, is causing problems in your daily life, or you feel you just can’t cope, then make an appointment with your doctor. Long-term stress can cause significant health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
Similarly, if your stress symptoms are accompanied by low mood, a feeling of hopelessness, or thoughts of harming yourself to escape the stress, then please speak to someone.
If you’re having symptoms such as palpitations, chest tightness, weight loss or changes in your bowel habit then don’t assume they are caused by stress. Get checked out and discuss them with your doctor.
Further help and support
For additional help and support, try one of the following resources:
Shout: Text 'SHOUT' to 85258 if you are struggling and a crisis volunteer will text you back. It's completely free 24/7.
Anxiety UK: a charity that specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
Mind: making sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.
Papyrus: contact for help and advice around thoughts of suicide.
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