What is stress?
Symptoms of stress
Tips for managing stress
Lifestyle
Relaxation

What is stress?

Stress occurs when the demands in our life outweigh our ability to cope.  There are lots of different demands that people may be facing including financial worries, difficulties within families, work stressors and health concerns.  These are just some examples, there are lots of different factors that can result in stress and often it is a combination of these factors.  Stress affects everyone differently and what is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another. 

Stress is very common.  Everyone has probably experienced stress at some point in their lives.   Believe it or not, some stress can actually be good for you.  For example, stress can be helpful if it leads you to study for an exam or prepare for a job interview.   However, stress is unhelpful when it leads you to feel overwhelmed, burnt and out and unable to cope. 

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Symptoms of stress

Here are some of the common symptoms of stress- see if you can identify with any of these.

Physical Sensations Mood Thoughts Behaviour
Feeling sick
Butterflies in stomach
Light headed
Tired
Poor concentration
Poor sleep
Tense
Anxious
Stressed
Overwhelmed
Irritable
I can't cope with this
I am losing control
I can't manage all of this
I am going to miss something important
Rush about to get everything done
Snap at others
Stop activities that you enjoy
Put things off/procrastinate
Drink more alcohol/smoke more/eat unhealthy foods.

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Tips for managing stress

Identifying your stressors

To help you identify what factors are causing you to feel stressed, try keeping a diary of when you are feeling stressed for a few weeks.  Try recording:

  • The date, time and place where you felt stressed.
  • What you were doing and who you were with.
  • What was going through your mind.
  • How stressed you felt from 1-10.
  • What you did as a result.

Keeping this record can help you to identify what triggers your stress and what effect this has on you. 

Getting the balance right

When we are stressed, we might cut down on doing things that we enjoy and spending time with others because we might feel that we do not have enough time for these things.  However, it is really important to spend some time on activities you enjoy (e.g. reading a book in the bath)  that give you a sense of achievement (e.g. finishing a pile of ironing, sorting out some unpaid bills) and where you feel close to others (e.g. calling a friend for a chat).
Try to plan to set time aside for one of these activities in each day- these will actually help you cope better with stress.

Overcoming avoidance

When we feel stressed about something, the most tempting thing can be to avoid it altogether. This might make us feel better in the short-term, but in the long term, we don't give ourselves the opportunity to test out our predictions about what might have happened and we might miss out on things that are important to us or that we would enjoy. 

To overcome avoidance, try breaking tasks down into small, manageable steps and then reward yourself when you have managed each step.

Managing your time

Managing your time effectively can be a very effective way to gain control of your stress levels, at home or at work.  Here are some tips to help you to do this:

  • Set yourself SMART goals:
    Specific
    Measurable
    Achievable
    Realistic
    Time-limited
  • Rank priorities, identify what tasks are most important.
  • Plan your work.  This may take up time but in the long-term it can keep you focussed on what you need to do.
  • Spend time organising your environment.
  • Don't procrastinate, putting off tasks just gives you more to do the next day.
  • Identify when you are most productive and try to complete the most demanding tasks then.
  • Keep a balance- make sure you have a balance of activities are enjoyable and relaxing.

Problem-Solving

When we are stressed, we can feel overwhelmed by our problems.  Problem solving technique is a tool that can help you feel in control and tackle your problem in a step by step way. 

Step 1: Identify your problem.  Try to be as specific as possible, it may be that you need to break bigger problems down into smaller ones.
Step 2: Brainstorm possible solutions.  Think about all the possible solutions that would solve the problem.  Don't evaluate them at this stage, just a list of solutions that could solve the problem.
Step 3: Evaluate the solutions.  Try to think of the advantages and disadvantages of each solution.
Step 4: Pick one!
Step 5: Make a plan for how you could put the solution into practice.  To make your solution more manageable, it can be helpful to break it down into smaller steps.
Step 6: Do it!  Then evaluate how it went.  Ask yourself, did it work?  If not, then did it almost work?  What parts didn't work?  Is there another solution that you could try instead.

Asking for help

When we are stressed, we often feel alone like we are the only person that feels like this.  We also often feel like we should be able to sort these things on our own.  Sometimes we don't want to tell other people how we are feeling because we don't want to be a burden to them.  It is really important to share how you are feeling with someone that you trust.  Having support from others is a really helpful way of coping better.  It means that you can get some ideas of advice and ways to cope with your difficulties.  It can also make you feel better to share how you are feeling and you might find that other people feel in a similar way or have had similar experiences in the past. 

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Lifestyle

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle helps us cope better with stress and can also help to improve your sleep. 

A healthy diet is an important tool to help us deal with stress. Try not to skip meals or eat convenience foods.  Eating should be pleasurable and relaxing so try to set time aside to enjoy your meals.  Try to eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Caffeine can be helpful to give us a boost when we are feeling tired.  But the effects of caffeine can last up to six hours so try to avoid this in the late afternoon and evening or else this could affect your sleep.  Caffeine is found in tea and coffee, energy drinks, hot chocolate and some soft drinks.  Try switching to a decaffeinated version instead. 

Physical exercise is very helpful way of improving how we feel and helping us cope better with stress.  Exercise can help to reduce muscle tension and produces natural anti-depressants to improve our mood.

The ideal amount of exercise is 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week.  It is a good idea to start slowly and build up intensity.  Try to think of ways to exercise by doing something you enjoy, like taking up a sport you used to play or going for a walk with a friend. 

Alcohol can act as a natural depressant and can lower mood and increase anxiety and stress levels if consumed in excess.  Try to stick within the recommended guidelines for alcohol intake.

For more information about how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, including recommended guidelines for alcohol intake, visit www.nhs.uk

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Relaxation

Setting time aside each day for relaxation is a really good way to reduce symptoms of stress, reduce tension and to unwind.  You can use relaxing activities or specific relaxation exercises.  Try to plan a relaxing activity each day.  Some examples of relaxing activities include:

  • Exercise - e.g. going for a walk or a swim
  • Reading a book
  • Watching a favourite TV show
  • Going to the cinema
  • Doing something creative - drawing, painting, writing poetry
  • Playing a game or doing a puzzle
  • Listening to music
  • Calling or visiting family or friends

You can also use specific relaxation techniques to help manage the symptoms of stress.

Controlled breathing

Controlled breathing is a simple technique that is really helpful for when you notice yourself becoming stressed or anxious and no-one will notice that you are doing it. 

Step 1: Breathe out.
Step 2: Breathe in slowly to the count of four, "one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, four elephant."
Step 3: Hold your breath for the count of four.
Step 4: Breathe out slowly while counting elephants.


Repeat the above steps until you start to feel calm.  Take a few ordinary breaths in between the deep ones.  Don't take too many deep breaths in a row or breathe too quickly or you will become dizzy. 

 Visualisation

  • If you have a good imagination you might find visualisation a useful way to relax. Use your imagination to take your mind to a relaxing place (real or imaginary) where you feel safe, calm and peaceful. For example, you might picture yourself on holiday on a desert island beach or you might be on top of a mountain watching the sun set. It is entirely up to you and what kind of an image makes you feel relaxed.
  • Try to engage all of your senses. What can you see? What are the colours and shapes of the things around you? Are you alone or with company? Listen out for the noises and think about what you can smell and feel. Perhaps you can hear the trickle of a stream nearby, can smell freshly cut grass and feel the warm sunshine on your face. Let your imagination distract you from the worries and stresses of everyday life.
  • Remember to also breathe slowly and regularly whilst you practice this exercise.

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Hopefully you have found these tips helpful. However, if you feel that you are really struggling to cope with stress, then you should contact your GP as soon as you can.