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Managing Stress

This week, we bring out a guest post by Catherine Fairlamb, Health & Safety specialist and Mental Health First Aider.

Stress Management and Symptoms

How are you? It is a simple question, and most of the time we go "Fine, yeah".

But this time think about it: how are you? How are you feeling? How are you sleeping, eating? Are you drinking more? Weird dreams?

Equally, take a moment to be conscious of your body. Listen to it. Start with your feet and work your way up. Any tightness, any pains or aches? Often our body will tell us when there is something wrong. Tight muscles can be a sign we aren’t relaxing or being tense.

At this time, when we are isolated from others and in a world with lots of negative news, we all are going to be more exposed to stress or anxiety. Therefore think about this question carefully, and, it is okay to say- actually, I am not too good. I am struggling and anxious.

But what to do if either you, or a friend or family member says, actually, no, I am not okay?

There are a number of things we can do to help ourselves. Be aware that we aren’t psychiatrists or counselors, but there is a degree of self care which anyone can do.

At this point let us just address how we discuss mental health. There is often a negative connotation with mental health - we experience poor mental health, we suffer with our mental health. However, we need to acknowledge we all have mental health - good and bad. We can look after this, as we do with our physical health, and improve it.

More of us are affected by poor mental health than we may realise, 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues each year and at any given time, 1 in 6 working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health

For this article, we are specifically looking at the question of stress, and how to manage it.

What is stress?

We all experience stress. It should also be noted that in small amounts stress can be helpful and beneficial to us. Stress is a feeling of being under abnormal pressure. This pressure can come from different aspects of your day to day life, such as an increased workload, a transitional period, an argument you have with your family or new and existing financial worries. You may find that this has a cumulative effect, with each stressor building on top of the other. During these situations you may feel threatened or upset and your body might create a stress response.

The problem comes when stress becomes long term and acute. And it is at this point it begins to impact on our physical and mental health in a negative way.

Signs of Stress:

Common signs of stress are:

  • feelings of constant worry or anxiety

  • feelings of being overwhelmed

  • difficulty concentrating

  • mood swings or changes in your mood

  • irritability or having a short temper

  • difficulty relaxing

  • depression

  • low self-esteem

  • eating more or less than usual

  • changes in your 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.

This video here gives a good explanation of stress and how it can affect our bodies.

How do we manage stress?

There are 3 steps to take when feeling stress.

Step 1: Realise when it is causing a problem

The first questions is to consider just how stressed we are. There are a number of stress tests available online, for example:

Individual Stress Test (requires you to enter your email address)

NHS Mood Self-Assessment

Alternatively look out for physical warning such as tense muscles, headaches, or over-tiredness.

Try to make the connection between feeling ill or tired and the pressures you are faced with (for example when stressed I often get symptoms of tonsillitis)

Step 2: Identify the Causes

By understanding what is causing stress we can take action to manage our stress levels.

  • Try to identify the underlying causes

  • Sort the possible reasons for your stress into three categories 1) those with a practical solution 2) those that will get better given time and 3) those you can’t do anything about

  • Try to release the worry of those in the second and third groups and let them go

Alternatively, a useful exercise is the ‘stress container’, which doesn’t hust help us understand the causes of stress, but also the stress levels we experience

First, draw a large triangle, and fill this triangle with everything which is causing stress. This can be family health, politics, job security, the economy. It could be now, your triangle is full and looking a little bit scary at how many things are causing us anxiety. Once your stress levels build up, the container overflows- the level this overflow happens is different for lots of people, and issues develop. Some common signs our stress container is overflowing include:

· Irritability, tearfulness

· Indecision, inability to concentrate

· Consuming more alcohol, caffeine or cigarettes

· Frequent tiredness, headaches or stomach problems

We can lower the stress levels by the use of useful coping mechanisms, so even when stresses increase our stress container doesn’t overflow.

Also, take a moment to be aware of those items in our stress triangle which are not in our control. Cross them out, and you will find that a lot of the items causing stress are removed. These leave you with things you can focus on, and work towards removing from our stress container. Create an action plan and you will feel able to regain control over some of the things causing stress.

Step 3: Reduce Stress

There are lots of things we can do to help reduce stress:

· Be active

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 deal with your problems more calmly.

· Take control

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.

· 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.

· Have some 'me time'

Spend an hour just focussing on you- turn your phone and computer off, and do something you enjoy. Reading, meditation, a hot bath, some sewing or knitting. Just something which gives you time to focus on yourself.

· Challenge yourself

Setting yourself goals and challenges, whether at work or outside, such as learning a new language or a new sport, helps build confidence. This will help you deal with stress.

· Avoid unhealthy habits

Don't rely on alcohol, smoking and caffeine as ways of coping.

In the long term, these crutches won't solve your problems. They'll just create new ones.

· Help other people

Evidence shows that people who help others, through activities such as volunteering or community work, become more resilient.

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 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'll make a real

· Try to be positive

Look for the positives in life, and things for which you're grateful.

Try writing down 3 things that went well, or for which you're grateful, at the end of every day.

· 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.

Other useful resources:

Breathing Exercises for stress:

This calming breathing technique for stress, anxiety and panic takes just a few minutes and can be done anywhere. It is taken from the NHS website

You will get the most benefit if you do it regularly, as part of your daily routine. You can do this exercise in any position (sitting, standing or lying)

Make yourself as comfortable as you can. Loosen any clothes that restrict your breathing.

If you're lying down, place your arms a little bit away from your sides, with the palms up. Let your legs be straight, or bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor.

If you're sitting, place your arms on the chair arms.

If you're sitting or standing, place both feet flat on the ground. Whatever position you're in, place your feet roughly hip-width apart.

  • Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it.

  • Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

  • Breathe in gently and regularly. Some people find it helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5. You may not be able to reach 5 at first.

  • Then, without pausing or holding your breath, let it flow out gently, counting from 1 to 5 again, if you find this helpful.

  • Keep doing this for 3 to 5 minutes.

For more advice there are a number of audioguides available which can help on the NHS website ( which cover a range of topics.

Mindfulness Apps

Many of these require subscription:

Headspace: Free download, then optional subscription £9.99/month, £44.99/year, iOS/Android

Calm: Free one week trial, then £28.99/year, iOS/Android

Stop, Breathe & Think: Free download, optional subscription £9.99/month, £54.99/year), iOS/Android

The Mindfulness App: Free one week trial, then £54.99/year, iOS/Android

Smiling Mind: Free to download, iOS/Android

Insight Timer: Free to download

UCLA Mindful: free to download

10% Happier: Free to download on trial

- By Catherine Fairlamb, Health and Safety specialist and Mental Health First Aider.

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Header Image: Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

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