Practical ways to cope when you feel things are getting too much

Life – it should be joyous! But for many of us, this may not be the current reality. According to a study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of people feel so stressed that they feel overwhelmed or unable to cope. The good news? Things can get better.

While some everyday stress is normal, if you’re feeling stressed on a more long-term basis (and if it’s starting to affect you physically), it’s always a good idea to get some help.

Booking an appointment with your GP is an excellent starting point – they’re there to support you – or you could consider the mental health support on Boots Health Hub*, which offers an array of helpful tools and treatment options to suit your specific needs and can be accessed conveniently from the comfort of your own home.

In the meantime, it’s important for us all to know practical ways for how to deal with chronic stress – the first step in bringing that (well-deserved) joy back into our lives.

What is stress?

Put simply, stress is a feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope due to stressful situations or events that put pressure on us. It could be anything from having lots to do and think about, experiencing something new or unexpected, or feeling that we aren’t in control.

When you’re stressed, you may feel your heart and breathing rates go up, your muscles tighten and blood pressure rises. This is the body’s ‘fight or flight’ stress response, and starts with adrenalin being released into the bloodstream.

This kind of stress can sometimes fuel us, according to Dr Serena Rakha, an NHS GP.

“Stress on the body doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. In evolutionary terms, stress helped us run away from frightening and threatening situations,” she says.

Once the threat or situation passes, the physical signs usually disappear. This tends to be known as everyday stress. But if you’re constantly stressed, it can negatively impact your health and become chronic.

What's chronic stress & how is it different from acute stress?

Short-term or acute stress is a feeling you experience for a short period of time. Maybe you’re stuck in traffic and late for work, you’ve had an argument with a friend or received criticism from your boss. It’s an annoying feeling, but it’s normal, and usually passes quickly.

Long-term or chronic stress is just as it sounds. It’s feeling in a more constant state of stress for a long period of time.

“Examples of chronic stress can be anything from looking after a dependent relative to an ongoing stressful job,” explains Dr Rakha. “These can be difficult situations to avoid. However, over time, this can have negative effects on our physical and mental health.”

How can chronic stress affect my health?

The effects of chronic stress can vary.

If you’re stressed most of the time, you may experience stress-related symptoms including:

• Headaches or dizziness

• Muscle tension or pain

• Stomach problems

• Chest pain or a faster heartbeat

• Sexual problems

• Difficulty concentrating

• Struggling to make decisions

• Feeling overwhelmed

• Constantly worrying

• Being forgetful

• Being irritable and snappy

• Sleeping too much or too little

• Eating too much or too little

• Avoiding certain places or people

• Drinking or smoking more

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, talk to your GP. They can offer support, evaluate your symptoms and help rule out other potential conditions.

7 practical tips for dealing with stress

If you feel like stress is affecting your daily life, then rest assured there’s a multitude of things you can try at home to help reduce its impact.

1. Exercise regularly

Exercise can be a great way to help relieve stress, according to the NHS. It won’t make it vanish, but it does have the power to help minimise some of the emotional intensity that comes with it, clearing your head and allowing you to better deal with life’s ups and downs.

If you can’t get to the gym, there are lots of great home workouts to try, suited to all abilities, from yoga and aerobics to heart-pumping dance classes.

“And don’t forget the benefits of a walk in the fresh air,” adds Dr Rakha.

And remember to speak to your GP before starting any new forms of exercise if you have an existing medical condition or have not exercised in a long time.

2. Take note of your triggers

When it comes to stress management, making a note of your triggers could be helpful.

If you’re not sure what’s causing you stress, try keeping a diary for a few weeks, writing down the times during the day where you feel stressed and what caused you to feel that way. Then go back over what you’ve written to spot your triggers. Even if you can’t avoid these situations, being prepared can help you cope better when you begin to feel stressed.

3. Schedule in some ‘me time’

Where stress is concerned, relaxation is important.

“Self-care is vital,” says Dr Rakha. “It’s really important to know what helps you relax, whether this is listening to music, having a warm bath or eating a portion of your favourite comforting foods.”

A digital detox can also work well, as it’s important to take focus away from outside noise.

Relaxing techniques, such as meditation, are a great form of self-care. I really like Insight Timer, which is a free app featuring meditations, music and live yoga classes – no payment needed,” says Dr Rakha.

To learn more about the benefits of meditation, plus top tips for beginners, watch the Boots Live Well Panel talk with Dr Megan Jones Bell, former chief science officer at Headspace.

4. Try a regular breathing exercise

A lot of stressful times are a result of feeling that you’re not in control. Next time you find yourself feeling this way, remember that following a simple breathing exercise can be a great way to help recentre yourself.

“Simply breathing in for four and out for eight can work really well to help lower the heart rate,” suggests Dr Rakha. “Pairing this with smelling a calming essential oil, such as lavender, can also help bring you back to yourself.”

5. Avoid unhealthy habits

While reaching for alcohol, caffeine or cigarettes may feel like helpful coping mechanisms, this may cause more problems down the line.

Finding other ways to help address the root cause of your stress can be better in the long term, as can building a relaxation routine that works for you, whether that’s a breathing exercise like mentioned above, taking up a new hobby or pencilling in time to spend with friends or family. 

6. Try & find pockets of positivity

There’s a lot to be said for the power of positive thinking. The NHS suggests keeping a record, writing down a list of three things that went well, or for which you’re grateful for, at the end of every day.

It’s a small action that could have a big impact on your stress levels and sense of wellbeing.

7. Speak up

Talking through things can be a great way to help manage long-term stress. Chatting to family and friends can help you open up about how you’re feeling and get things off your chest. You may find that they’re also having similar feelings and worries, and talking them out together could help you both.

And if you prefer speaking to a health professional, talking therapies can be effective, confidential treatments. A GP can refer you to a service offering talking therapies, also known as IAPT services, or you can refer yourself directly, if you live in England and are over 18. Boots also offers a range of services in its Health Hub*.

It’s important to never suffer in silence if you’re feeling low.

How can I support someone suffering from chronic stress?

If you’ve got a friend or family member suffering from chronic stress, it can be difficult to know how best to help them. But the most important thing you can do is to look after your own physical and mental health, so that you’re in the best possible position to support them, while allowing them their space and independence.

“Just talking and listening can be so helpful,” advises Dr Rakha. “Asking that person what you could do to help make things better is also great. Don’t forget to check in periodically if they feel this would help them.”

And if you feel out of your depth?

“Encourage them to speak to their GP,” says Dr Rakha.

There are also support groups available from charities like Anxiety UK and Mind, which can help provide a sense of community, as well as advice in supportive environments.

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis or are at risk of harming yourself or others, please call 111, speak to your GP or the Samaritans on 116 123, or text Shout on 85258.

**Eligibility criteria applies. Subject to availability and charges apply