This content discusses depression, anxiety and alcohol or drug use, which some people may find triggering.
This guide provides you with tips on how to manage and reduce stress
Stress is a feeling of being under abnormal pressure, whether from an increased workload, an argument with a family member, or financial worries.
What is stress?
Stress affects us in lots of ways, both physically and emotionally, and in varying intensities.
Research has shown that stress can sometimes be positive. It makes us more alert and helps us perform better in certain situations. However, stress has only been found to be beneficial if it is short-lived. Excessive or prolonged stress can lead to illnesses such as heart disease and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
During situations that make you feel threatened or upset, your body creates a stress response. This can cause a variety of physical symptoms, change the way you behave, and lead you to experience more intense emotions.
Physical symptoms of stress
People react differently to stress. Some common symptoms of stress include sleeping problems, sweating, or a change in appetite.
Symptoms like these are triggered by a rush of stress hormones in your body which, when released, allow you to deal with pressures or threats. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate and increase the amount you sweat. This prepares your body for an emergency response. These hormones can also reduce blood flow to your skin and reduce your stomach activity. Cortisol, another stress hormone, releases fat and sugar into your system to boost your energy.
As a result, you may experience headaches, muscle tension, pain, nausea, indigestion and dizziness. You may also breathe more quickly, have palpitations or suffer from various aches and pains. In the long term, you may be putting yourself at risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Humans have inherited these things from our ancient ancestors, who needed to be able to either run away from danger or stay and fight. Once the pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels usually return to normal. However, if you’re constantly under stress, these hormones remain in your body, leading to the symptoms of stress. If you’re stuck in a busy office or on an overcrowded train, you can’t run away, so you can’t use up the chemicals your own body makes to protect you. Over time, the build-up of these chemicals and the changes they produce can be damaging to your health.
Behavioural and emotional effects of stress
When you are stressed you may have lots of different feelings, including anxiety, irritability or low self-esteem, which can lead you to become withdrawn, indecisive or tearful.
You may have periods of constant worry, racing thoughts, or repeatedly going over the same things in your head. Some people experience changes in their behaviour. They may lose their temper more easily, act irrationally or become more verbally or physically aggressive. These feelings can feed on each other and produce physical symptoms, which can make you feel even worse. For example, extreme anxiety can make you feel so unwell that you then worry you have a serious physical condition.
Identifying the signs of stress
Everyone experiences stress. However, when it affects your life, health and well-being, it’s important to tackle it as soon as possible. While stress affects everyone differently, there are common signs and symptoms for you to look out for:
- Feelings of constant worry or anxiety
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood swings or changes in mood
- Irritability or having a short temper
- Difficulty relaxing
- Low self-esteem
- Eating more or less than usual
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Using alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs to relax
- Aches and pains, particularly muscle tension
- Diarrhoea and constipation
- Feelings of nausea or dizziness
- Loss of sex drive
If you experience these symptoms for a prolonged period of time, and feel they are affecting your everyday life or making you feel unwell, speak to your GP. Ask them for information about the support services and treatments available to you.
What causes stress?
All sorts of situations can cause stress. The most common involve work, money matters and relationships with partners, children or other family members.
Stress can be caused either by major upheavals and life events such as divorce, unemployment, moving house and bereavement, or by a series of minor irritations such as feeling undervalued at work or arguing with a family member. Sometimes, there are no obvious causes. As a result, you may experience headaches, muscle tension, pain, nausea, indigestion and dizziness. You may also breathe more quickly, have palpitations or suffer from various aches and pains. In the long term, you may be putting yourself at risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Relationships and stress
Relationships are a great support in times when we feel stressed. However, from time to time the people close to you, be it a partner, parent, child, friend or colleague, can increase your stress levels.
Events such as ongoing minor arguments and disagreements, to larger family crises, such as an affair, illness or bereavement are likely to affect the way you think, feel and behave. This may consequently have an impact on your stress levels. Find out more about investing in healthy relationships.
Work-life balance and stress
The pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture in the UK is one of the biggest contributors to stress among the general population.
While current, average full-time working hours are 37 hours a week, a recent and dramatic rise in Britain’s working hours suggests this is already on the increase. 20.1% of the UK working population work 45 hours or more each week.
The human costs of unmanaged work-related stress is extensive. Feeling unhappy about the amount of time you spend at work and neglecting other aspects of life because of work may increase your vulnerability to stress. Increased levels of stress can, if not addressed early enough, lead to burnout or more severe mental health problems.
Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression are thought to be the leading cause of work absences, accounting for up to 40% of sick leave. In 2008, mental health accounted for 442,000 cases of work-related illness with a related estimated cost of £13.5 million. As a result, mental ill-health now accounts for a significant proportion of long-term sickness and early retirement, cited as the leading cause of illness for 20% of NHS employees.
Money and stress
Money and debt concerns place huge pressure on us, so it comes as no surprise that they have a marked effect on our stress levels.
The effects of the cost-of-living crisis in 2022 has affected everyone in some capacity. A survey of 3000 adults commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in November 2022 found that one in ten UK adults was feeling hopeless about their financial circumstances. More than one-third were feeling anxious and almost three in ten were feeling stressed.
The combination of chronic stress and debt can result in depression and anxiety and has been highlighted as a factor linked to suicidal thoughts and attempts. It’s important if you are worried about your finances and debts that you do not try to deal with them alone. There’s a lot of help and support available to you through organisations such as StepChange and Citizens Advice.
You could also talk to your GP or a trusted health professional if you are worried about how debt is affecting your mental and physical health.
Smoking, drinking and drug use and stress
Some people smoke, drink alcohol and use recreational drugs to reduce stress. But, this often makes problems worse.
Research shows that smoking may increase feelings of anxiety. Nicotine creates an immediate, temporary, sense of relaxation, which can then lead to withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Similarly, people may use alcohol as a means to manage and cope with difficult feelings, and to temporarily reduce feelings of anxiety. But, alcohol can make existing mental health problems worse. It can make you feel more anxious and depressed in the long run. It’s important to know the recommended limits and drink responsibly.
Prescription drugs, such as tranquillisers and sleeping tablets, which may have been prescribed for very good reasons, can also cause mental and physical health problems if used for long periods of time. Street drugs, such as cannabis or ecstasy, are usually taken for recreational purposes. For some people, problems start as their bodies get used to repeated use of the drug. This leads to the need for increased doses to maintain the same effect
How can you help yourself with stress?
Stress is a natural reaction to difficult situations in life, such as work, family, relationships and money problems.
We mentioned earlier on that a moderate amount of stress can help us perform better in challenging situations, but too much or prolonged stress can lead to physical problems. This can include lower immunity levels, digestive and intestinal difficulties such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or mental health problems such as depression. So, it’s important that we manage our stress and keep it at a healthy level to prevent long-term damage to our bodies and minds.
When you are feeling stressed, try to take these steps:
- Realise when it is causing you a problem. You need to make the connection between feeling tired or ill, with the pressures you are faced with. Don’t ignore physical warnings such as tense muscles, over-tiredness, headaches or migraines.
- Identify the causes. Try to identify the underlying causes. Group the possible reasons for your stress into those with a practical solution, those that will get better anyway given time, and those you can’t do anything about. Try to let go of those in the second and third groups – there’s no point in worrying about things you can’t change or things that will sort themselves out.
- Review your lifestyle. Are you taking on too much? Are there things you are doing which could be handed over to someone else? Can you do things in a more leisurely way? You may need to prioritise things you are trying to achieve and reorganise your life so that you are not trying to do everything at once.
You can also help protect yourself from stress in a number of ways:
- Eat healthily. A healthy diet will reduce the risks of diet-related diseases. Also, there is a growing amount of evidence showing how food affects our mood. Feelings of well-being can be protected by ensuring that our diet provides adequate amounts of brain nutrients such as essential vitamins and minerals, as well as water.
- Be aware of your smoking and drinking. Even though they may seem to reduce tension, this is misleading as they often make problems worse.
- Exercise. Physical exercise can be very effective in relieving stress. Even going out to get some fresh air and doing some light physical exercise, like walking to the shops, can help.
- Take time out. Take time to relax. Saying ‘I just can’t take the time off’ is no use if you are forced to take time off later through ill health. Striking a balance between responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself is important in reducing stress levels.
- Be mindful. Mindfulness meditation can be practised anywhere at any time. Research has suggested that it can reduce the effects of stress, anxiety and other related problems such as insomnia, poor concentration and low moods, in some people. The ‘Be Mindful’ website features a specially-developed online course in mindfulness, as well as details of local courses in your area.
- Get restful sleep. Sleeping problems are common when you’re suffering from stress. Try to make sure you get enough rest. For more tips on getting a good night’s sleep, read our guide ‘How to...sleep better’.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. Try to keep things in perspective. After all, we all have bad days.
Seeking help for stress
It’s okay to ask for professional help if you feel that you are struggling to manage on your own. It’s also important to get help as soon as possible so you can begin to get better.
The first person to approach is your GP. They should be able to give you advice about treatment, and may refer you to another local professional. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness-based approaches are known to help reduce stress. There are also a number of voluntary organisations which can help you to tackle the causes of stress and advise you about ways to get better.
- Every Mind Matters - The Mental Health Foundation supported the development of the Every Mind Matters stress resource, it offers advice on how to cope with stress.
- Anxiety UK - runs a helpline staffed by volunteers with personal experience of anxiety.
- Citizens Advice - provides free, independent and confidential advice for a range of problems as well as providing information on your rights and responsibilities.
- StepChange - provides help and information for people dealing with a range of debt problems.
- Samaritans - offer emotional support 24 hours a day - in full confidence.
- Specialist mental health services - there are a variety of specialist services that provide a range of treatments, including counselling and other talking therapies. These different services are often coordinated by a community mental health team (CMHT), which is usually based either at a hospital or a local community mental health centre.
Some teams provide 24-hour services so that you can contact them in a crisis. You should be able to contact your local CMHT through your local social services or social work team.
101 tips from you
We’d like to thank everyone who contributed some brilliant tips on how to manage stress. Everybody is different and what works for one person might not work for another. Here are 101 tips, find what works for you and give them a try.
- Be gentle to yourself
- Go window shopping
- Write short stories
- Call a loved one
- Talk to a stranger
- Practice CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy)
- Chat to your friends on Skype or Facebook
- Take a nap
- Take a break, even a short one can make a difference
- Going for a walk at lunchtime
- Write poetry
- Eat or drink something you enjoy
- Cuddle a baby (ideally one you know - cuddles with my niece or nephew are amazing for destressing)
- Spend time with children – they really put things in perspective, like ‘Wow there’s a cool cloud’, and remind you of simple things that used to amaze you
- Go out to a Karaoke night
- Imagine living in a different era, maybe wartime or before cars and trains were invented and how much harder life would be
- Bake a cake
- Sitting in a café with a cup of tea and a magazine
- Go for a relaxing swim
- Sit on a park bench and watch the world go by
- Tidy a room or cupboard (other people might find this stressful, but I find it relaxing!)
- Challenge a friend to a game of Scrabble
- Breathe deeply for two minutes, and focus on your breaths
- Make something – knit a scarf, build an Airfix model
- Write a list of the reasons you have to be happy with life
- Take a minute to stretch your body
- Use a relaxing room fragrance or scented candle to create a sense of sanctuary
- Practicing Tai Chi
- Looking at photos of happy memories.
- Have a cup of tea
- Thinking of something you’re looking forward to or something that was fun
- Go to the cinema
- Aquafit classes at lunchtime
- Go for a bike ride
- Listen to the birds singing
- Reminding yourself it could be worse and count your blessings
- Playing board games with your family
- Playing my favourite song and singing it out loud
- Practising calligraphy
- I find moving furniture around the house very soothing
- Write a letter to a loved one
- Play with my children
- Watch some programs on TV
- Go out for a run in the park
- Volunteer at the local homeless shelter, it helps put my worries into perspective
- Play Sudoku or crosswords
- Read some gossip magazines
- Go to a salsa class
- Get a cuddle