In today’s society, it can be hard to avoid feelings of stress, but arming ourselves with clever tools to identify the cause and deal with it can make all the difference
How many times have you responded to the question, ‘How are you?’ with the jokey response, ‘So stressed out!’. Stress has somehow become a social currency we use to prove we’re working hard. Whilst the struggle with work and life balance is often the culprit, for many of us, the events of the last couple of years have exacerbated feelings of stress and uncertainty on top of that. Recent statistics reported that one in every 14 people (7%) in the UK say they feel stressed every single day; with one in five people saying they feel stressed more days a month than they don’t*.
Impact of stress
It can be easy to brush feelings of stress under the carpet - after all, we’re not the only ones, right? But that’s the wrong attitude, say experts, and we should be looking out for signs of stress in those around us too.
Put simply, stress is any situation that triggers a particular biological response. When you perceive a threat or a major challenge, chemicals and hormones – such as cortisol – surge throughout your body causing an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure. It’s your natural ‘flight or fight’ response that has kept humans alive for thousands of years: you either fight the stressor or run away from it. Typically, after the response occurs, your body should relax, but too much constant ‘acute’ stress (the day-to-day stress we all experience) can become ‘chronic’ stress and have negative effects on your long-term health.
Floss Knight, psychotherapist and CEO of UK Therapy Guide says, “It’s essential to recognise the psychological and emotional signs of stress in your own life because they can have a profound impact on your overall wellbeing.” She explains, “Increased cortisol levels can exacerbate other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, impact your blood pressure, and even negatively change your digestion process.”
One in five adults in the UK say they feel stressed more days a month than they don’t*
Identify the causes
When it comes to daily stresses, it’s important to think about what’s causing it. Can you change what’s triggering it? Are you getting enough sleep? Do you have money worries? Is work exceptionally challenging? Can you ask for help? Floss adds, “Even if it’s something that’s out of your control, think about how you’re engaging in the stress. Are you repeatedly saying to yourself and others, ‘I’m so stressed’ and, constantly reminding yourself of your stress? Are you checking the news frequently even though it doesn’t make you feel good? Try and be gentle to yourself around the stress triggers.”
Psychotherapist Sarah Lee says that signs of stress can come in different forms, such as people acting out of character, difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, becoming withdrawn, avoiding social contact or disinterest in everyday activities. She explains, “There might be an increase in ‘coping strategies’ such as eating, drinking, social media or phone usage or other forms of ‘zoning out’ like video games. You might also have physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive issues, muscle pain or a racing heart.”
Ways to release stress
Sarah adds that since stress can accumulate, we should check in on it frequently and monitor on an ongoing basis. “It’s a bit like having your car serviced regularly so that it doesn’t break down unexpectedly. Ignoring stress or not taking time to deal with pent-up emotions that lead to feeling stressed can cause burnout or other issues such as depression and anxiety. Ideally, we should incorporate ‘outlets for stress’ into our lives so that our stress tank doesn’t end up overflowing,” says Sarah. Outlets for acute stress can include taking a 10-minute walk, drinking water, reducing caffeine intake, spending time with friends, taking up a new sport or hobby, or simply switching off from your phone and work for a period of time.
Focusing on your breathing is a great way of trying to take control of stressful moments. Mindset coach Lauren Paton, who specialises in stress management, says you can try breathing in deeply for a count of four, hold for four, exhale for four and hold for four. “Trying to tackle the problem head on by allowing yourself to express the stressors you’re facing can be vital,” she adds. “Sometimes we just need to release stress and we can do this by allowing our emotion to come up and leave us. This can be done through yelling, crying, laughing, or stomping our feet and shaking our body. Meditation is a quieter way of doing this – different things work for different people.”
“We need to change our language around stress,” adds Floss Knight. “Instead of saying you’re stressed, try saying, ‘I’m finding this difficult, but I’m going to be gentle to myself today.’ And instead of checking the news (or another habit that adds fuel to the stress fire), try to change this behaviour and do something you find relaxing instead.”
Focus on your breathing to try and take control of stressful moments
Not all stress is bad
If the measures you’ve taken have left you unable to deal with stress by yourself or feeling overwhelmed, speaking to your GP or other mental health professional can help. “They’ll be able to pinpoint where you’re getting stuck, help troubleshoot and change what’s going on,” says psychotherapist Sarah Lee. Charities such as mind.org.uk can help you find support.
Finally, it’s important to recognise that not all stress is bad stress. In fact, we wouldn’t be able to function without a certain level of stress. Mindset coach Lauren says once you learn that, you can use it to harness positive change. “It’s designed to save our lives. It happens when we feel our physical or emotional abilities are exceeded by the demand on us. The problem comes when we don’t allow the stress to leave our bodies. Caring for ourselves in this way isn’t frivolous, it’s self-preservation.”
If you’re concerned about your stress levels or mental health, or are feeling overwhelmed, please make an appointment to see your GP.
Did you know? According to a 2020 survey**, 79% of Brits say the most common type of stress is work stress, 60% often feel monetary stress and 48% experience family stress.
Children and stress
Speaking to your children about stress levels may not be as straight forward as it is with a friend, but it’s just as important. Dr Susanna Petche, a GP with over 20 years’ experience specialising in the interplay between lifestyle, health and wellbeing, says “It’s important to normalise talking about feelings by speaking about your own day, and what you’ve been doing and thinking. Be fully available to listen at times when kids are likely to talk, such as mealtimes, in the car or at bedtime. Let the child express what they’re feeling and ask them what they think might help, and what they need from you. Younger children tend to express worries through play, so listening to the themes here can give an idea of their concerns. Engage in de-stressing activities as a family, such as going for a walk or a bike ride. Children learn by watching their parents and caregivers, so leading by example is the best way to help them to recognise and regulate their stress.”