British approach to dealing with stress runs risk of serious mental health problems

Release Date: 03 November 2010

Source: Mental Health Foundation

Country: United Kingdom

Mental Health Foundation survey reveals British approach to dealing with stress runs risk of serious mental health problems

Eating junk food, spending time alone or ‘just living with it’ are the most common approaches to dealing with stress, despite the mental health risks

Other highlights from the survey:

  • One in five people feel stressed every day, with half feeling stressed at least once a week.
  • Economic climate reflected as money and work are revealed the main causes of stress in Britain.
  • Under-25s are the most stressed age group overall and the most stressed about unemployment.
  • Liverpool and Milton Keynes are the most stressed cities, Bristol the least. 
  • Women are more stressed than men about family issues and the laziness of partners, while men are more stressed about work and being single. 
  • Younger people get most stressed about Christmas and other family gatherings.

To coincide with National Stress Awareness Day, the charity The Mental Health Foundation has published the results of its ‘Be Mindful Stress Survey’ into the most common causes of, and methods of dealing with, stress across Britain.

The survey was conducted as part of the Foundation’s ongoing ‘Be Mindful’ campaign to raise awareness of mindfulness* as clinically-proven way of dealing with stress, following their launch of the UK’s first online course in mindfulness, Be Mindful, in September.

When provided with a definition of stress and list of its symptoms, half of all respondents revealed that they feel stressed at least once a week, with one in five (21%) feeling stressed every day. Money-related issues, such as debt or being unable to pay for essentials like food or rent, were given as the main cause of stress for 28% of Britons – the biggest single cause. Work-related issues, such as the threat of redundancies or having too much work to do, were the second most common cause (27%), reflecting recent Health and Safety Executive figures indicating a rise in sick days taken due to work-related stress over recent years1. Family and children also registered highly as causes of stress (19%), as did personal relationships (12%).

Mental health risks

Perhaps the most concerning figures in the survey related to how we manage our stress. When asked how they deal with their stress, almost two thirds of respondents (63%) said that they would do nothing and just live with it, a figure that remained broadly consistent whether people felt stressed every day or less frequently. Nearly a third (30%), said they spend time alone, making it the second most common approach to dealing with stress. The third most common response was to eat comfort or junk food (26%), a response that was particularly common amongst women (33% compared to 18% of men). All three responses are in contrast to recommended stress-management practice, which advises that people should take steps to manage their stress, remain sociable and talk about their problems, and eat healthily. Without managing it appropriately, stress can result in more serious mental health problems, such as depression, as well as contributing to the risk of physical health problems such as stroke or heart attack.

Healthier approaches to dealing with stress featured further down the list of responses, with discussing it with a friend of family member fourth (24%), taking physical exercise fifth (14%), and practicing mindfulness or meditation eighth (6%). Another less healthy method of stress-management – drinking alcohol or taking drugs – was sixth (13%), while taking it out on friends or family was seventh (12%). An indication of the direct way in which unmanaged stress can impact on the economy was in the 3% who responded that they take a day of work when feeling stressed.

Dr Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation said:

“The economic costs of unmanaged stress are huge and increasing – 11 million lost working days a year at the last count – while the personal costs for those who experience it, and their families and friends, is of equal concern. Unmanaged stress can additionally develop into mental health problems, such as depression, as well as increasing the risk of physical problems such as heart disease.

“The results of the Be Mindful survey suggest that too many of us aren’t managing our stress in a healthy way, meaning the drive to raise awareness of mindfulness as a healthy, practical way of managing stress has never been more important. Fortunately, there are a range of excellent books and courses in mindfulness available for people who wish to take control of their own stress management, including our specially developed online course, launched recently for those who might lack the time, money, or access to tuition in their area to attend a course.

“Despite the uncertain times ahead, if more people can learn to manage their stress through healthy approaches such as eating well, taking regular exercise, and practicing mindfulness, there is no reason why the burden of stress on society need continue as it has been."

Dr Jonty Heaversedge, South London GP, BBC Street Doctor, and co-author of The Mindful Manifesto, said:

“Stress is becoming increasingly common in these troubled economic times, and a problem I am seeing more and more amongst my patients. The clinical evidence for mindfulness as an effective method of stress reduction is compelling and, like eating well and taking regular exercise, it is a healthy way in which people can manage their stress so that it doesn’t end up taking over their lives or developing into a more serious mental illness.”

For more information about mindfulness, or to register for the online course, please visit the Mental Health Foundation’s dedicated mindfulness website.

For further information about the survey, stress or mindfulness, or for an interview with a spokesperson from the Mental Health Foundation about the causes, effects and methods of dealing with stress, please contact Alistair Martin: 020 7803 1130 / 07500 334 165 / amartin@mhf.org.uk.