How to understand and cope with stress this Stress Awareness Day

2nd Nov 2022
Challenging mental health inequalities

This content mentions death or bereavement, substance abuse and addiction (which may include mentions of alcohol or drug use), depression, anxiety and trauma, which some people may find triggering.

We all feel stress, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Stress can motivate us, make us more alert, and help us perform better in certain situations, such as job interviews or competing in sports events.

But stress is only good for us if it’s short-lived. Dealing with stress over long periods of time can be harmful, potentially leading to mental health problems like anxiety or depression.

This Stress Awareness Day is a chance for us to understand more about stress and what we can do about it.

So, what is stress?

The stress response is a survival strategy to keep us safe. Humans have evolved this as a vital response to avoid being eaten by predators. When our brains sensed danger, it would shut down unnecessary functions and flood our blood with glucose, giving us a power surge to make our muscles respond in one of two ways: fight or flight. Today, we are less likely to be at risk of being eaten, but our response to situations where we are under pressure beyond our control is still the same. Many of us feel this response repeatedly every day, so instead of escaping the bear and finding safety, it’s like being chased by the bear every day with no let-up.

If you are trying to cope with stressful situations every day, this constant state of fight or flight can harm your mental and physical health. These feelings of abnormal pressure can be brought on by things like bereavement, an increased workload, family arguments, other traumatic events, or even financial worries.

Over the last few years, stress has been something that most of us have become familiar with. The challenges of the pandemic, closely followed by the increasing cost-of-living crisis, have put huge pressure on most of us. The burden of struggling to meet everyday costs like heating, groceries, and transport is also chipping away at our mental health.

What makes matters worse is how much of this is out of our control. Incomes haven’t risen in line with prices for many years, and this is being felt particularly by people who were already experiencing financial strain, any practical solutions like reducing spending or increasing income may have already been maxed out.

We need our governments to act to make sure that every person, family, and community has enough money to live a healthy life and to get high-quality public services.

The Mental Health Foundation will continue to push for policy changes across all government departments, making sure that people can live mentally healthy and prosperous lives. We can prevent poor mental health if people are supported to live well. Removing the stress of meeting our basic needs of food, shelter, and warmth is where we start – unbelievably, this is what we’re still asking for in 2022!

How to recognise and cope with stress

In the meantime, there are some things we can do to help recognise and cope with stress.

If you are feeling stressed, you may feel anxious, afraid, angry, aggressive, sad, irritable, frustrated, or depressed. Physically this may cause headaches, nausea, indigestion, digestive problems such as constipation or bloating, shallow breathing or hyperventilating, excessive sweating, aches and pains, or heart palpitations.

You may behave differently when feeling stressed. You risk withdrawing from your family or friends, being indecisive or inflexible, being tearful, having trouble sleeping, experiencing sexual problems, or taking up harmful behaviour more often, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs.

To help manage stress, it’s important to talk with people you trust. People with strong social networks cope better. If you don’t feel you can confide in someone you know, you can use a confidential helpline such as Breathing Space or Samaritans (see below).

Have a look at our blog on the cost-of-living crisis, which has things that you can try to help.

If stress is becoming overwhelming, try getting some professional help from your GP. If the financial strain is causing stress, some organisations may be able to offer practical help, such as StepChange or Turn 2 Us (see below).

Stress is a common experience, but that doesn’t mean we have to put up with it. Support is available to help manage stress before it becomes a problem.

Read more about stress and mental health

Read our A-Z topic on stress

Breathing Space - Helpline is open for people in Scotland, from Monday to Thursday, 6 pm to 2 am and at weekends, from Friday 6 pm to Monday, 6 am. Call 0800 838587.

Samaritans - call anytime on 116 123.

StepChange - free debt advice online.

Turn2Us - practical help for people in financial need.

If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.

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