Updated: Feb 6, 2018
How to deal with stress
Stress causes physical changes in the body designed to help you take on threats or difficulties.
You may notice that your heart pounds, your breathing quickens, your muscles tense, and you start to sweat. This is sometimes known as the fight or flight response.
Once the threat or difficulty passes, these physical effects usually fade. But if you're constantly stressed, your body stays in a state of high alert and you may develop stress-related symptoms.
Symptoms of stress
Stress can affect how you feel emotionally, mentally and physically, and also how you behave.
How you may feel emotionally
irritable and "wound up"
anxious or fearful
lacking in self-esteem Things you should NEVER apologise for
How you may feel mentally
difficulty making decisions
How you may feel physically
muscle tension or pain
feeling tired all the time
eating too much or too little
How you may behave
drinking or smoking more
snapping at people
avoiding things or people you are having problems with
Visit the Mind website for more signs of stress.
How to tackle stress
You can't always prevent stress, but there are lots of things you can do to manage stress better.
If you're stressed, whether by your job or by something more personal, the first step to feeling better is to identify the cause.
The most unhelpful thing you can do is turn to something unhealthy to help you cope, such as smoking or drinking.
"In life, there's always a solution to a problem," says Professor Cary Cooper, an occupational health expert at the University of Lancaster. "Not taking control of the situation and doing nothing will only make your problems worse."
He says the keys to good stress management are building emotional strength, being in control of your situation, having a good social network and adopting a positive outlook.
Check out our selection of stress-busting apps in the Digital Apps Library.
What you can do to address stress
These are Professor Cooper's top 10 stress-busting suggestions:
Exercise won't make your stress disappear, but it will reduce some of the emotional intensity that you're feeling, clearing your thoughts and letting you to deal with your problems more calmly.
For more advice, read how being active helps mental wellbeing.
Get started with exercise.
There's a solution to any problem. "If you remain passive, thinking, 'I can't do anything about my problem', your stress will get worse," says Professor Cooper. "That feeling of loss of control is one of the main causes of stress and lack of wellbeing."
The act of taking control is in itself empowering, and it's a crucial part of finding a solution that satisfies you and not someone else.
Read tips on how to manage your time.
Connect with people
A good support network of colleagues, friends and family can ease your work troubles and help you see things in a different way.
"If you don't connect with people, you won't have support to turn to when you need help," says Professor Cooper.
The activities we do with friends help us relax. We often have a good laugh with them, which is an excellent stress reliever.
"Talking things through with a friend will also help you find solutions to your problems," says Professor Cooper.
Read about some other ways relationships help our wellbeing.
Have some 'me time'
Here in the UK, we work the longest hours in Europe, meaning we often don't spend enough time doing things we really enjoy.
"We all need to take some time for socialising, relaxation or exercise," says Professor Cooper.
He recommends setting aside a couple of nights a week for some quality "me time" away from work. "By earmarking those two days, it means you won't be tempted to work overtime," he says.
Setting yourself goals and challenges, whether at work or outside, such as learning a new language or a new sport, helps to build confidence. This will help you deal with stress.
"By continuing to learn, you become more emotionally resilient as a person," says Professor Cooper. "It arms you with knowledge and makes you want to do things rather than be passive, such as watching TV all the time."
Avoid unhealthy habits
Don't rely on alcohol, smoking and caffeine as your ways of coping. "Men more than women are likely to do this. We call this avoidance behaviour," says Professor Cooper. "Women are better at seeking support from their social circle."
Over the long term, these crutches won't solve your problems. They'll just create new ones. "It's like putting your head in the sand," says Professor Cooper. "It might provide temporary relief, but it won't make the problems disappear. You need to tackle the cause of your stress."
Help other people
Professor Cooper says evidence shows that people who help others, through activities such as volunteering or community work, become more resilient.
"Helping people who are often in situations worse than yours will help you put your problems into perspective," says Professor Cooper. "The more you give, the more resilient and happy you feel."
If you don't have time to volunteer, try to do someone a favour every day. It can be something as small as helping someone to cross the road or going on a coffee run for colleagues.
Work smarter, not harder
Working smarter means prioritising your work, concentrating on the tasks that will make a real difference.
"Leave the least important tasks to last," says Cooper. "Accept that your in-tray will always be full. Don't expect it to be empty at the end of the day."
Read some tips on how to manage your time better.
Try to be positive
Look for the positives in life, and things for which you're grateful. "People don't always appreciate what they have," says Professor Cooper. "Try to be glass half full instead of glass half empty," he says.
Try writing down three things that went well, or for which you're grateful, at the end of every day.
Listen to an audio guide on beating unhelpful thinking.
Accept the things you can't change
Changing a difficult situation isn't always possible. Try to concentrate on the things you do have control over.
"If your company is going under and is making redundancies, for example, there's nothing you can do about it," says Professor Cooper.
Or use these easy time-management techniques
try mindfulness – studies have found mindfulness can help reduce stress and improve your mood
use calming breathing exercises
download some relaxation and mindfulness apps on to your phone
listen to an anxiety control audio guide
Other things that may help:
share your problems with family or friends
make more time for your interests and hobbies
take a break or holiday
take some regular exercise and make sure you're eating healthily
make sure you're getting enough sleep (see tips on better sleep)
Read how workaholic Arvind learned to deal with stress.
What causes stress?
Big life changes often create stress, even happy events like having a baby or planning a wedding.
Feeling like you aren't in control of events in your life – for example, if you're diagnosed with a serious illness or you get made redundant – can also cause stress.
Stress may be related to:
work – for example, unemployment, a high workload or retirement (see Beat stress at work)
family – for example, divorce, relationship difficulties or being a carer
housing – for example, moving house or problems with neighbours
personal issues – for example, coping with a serious illness, bereavement or financial problems
It's important to tackle the causes of stress in your life if you can. Avoiding problems rather than facing them can make things worse.
But it's not always possible to change a stressful situation. You may need to accept there's nothing you can do about it and refocus your energies elsewhere.
For example, if you're a carer, find ways to take breaks and do the things you enjoy.
When to see your GP about stress
If you've tried self-help techniques and they aren't working, see your GP. There are lots of other options open to you, such as guided self-help or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
You may be able to attend a stress management course. Ask your GP or refer yourself to your local psychological therapies (IAPT) services.
Source NHS Choices
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