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Supporting someone who’s feeling stressed

Supporting someone who’s feeling stressed

This year’s National Stress Awareness Month is focused around the theme of ‘Community’ – chosen by the Stress Management Society to highlight how a lack of supportive relationships can cause loneliness and isolation, which in turn can have a negative impact on wellbeing and mental health.

The pandemic has raised stress levels for many of us, and continues to do so: the latest figures from the ONS show that over a third of adults (35%) surveyed between 16 to 27 March 2022 said they still felt worried about the effect of Covid-19 on their lives right now.

One way we can support those around us if they’re being affected by stress is by helping them to recognise the signs and symptoms. Many people don’t realise they’re struggling with stress, while others may have accepted stress as an inevitable part of life that they just need to get on with.

What is stress – and when is it a problem? According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress is "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them".

Most of us know what it’s like to feel stressed, when we’re faced with a long to-do list or we’re put under pressure, for example. The stress response is simply the body’s way of preparing us physically and mentally to deal with a challenge. The brain releases a flood of hormones that put us in ‘fight or flight’ mode, heightening our senses and alertness, and getting our muscles ready for action.

If this response happens on a frequent basis or lasts too long, however, it can be incredibly draining and overwhelming, and have a negative effect on our quality of life. The more the stress reaction is activated, the easier it is to trigger – and if left unmanaged it can begin to impact on our relationships, mood and health.

What to look out for

Physical reactions might include:

  • Increased heart rate, faster or more shallow breathing, tense muscles
  • Problems falling or staying asleep
  • Headaches
  • Feeling sick or dizzy
  • In the longer term, getting ill more frequently

They might feel:

  • Overwhelmed or out of control
  • Drained
  • Upset or weepy
  • Anxious or nervous
  • Unable to switch off
  • Depressed or negative
  • Unable to enjoy things

They might think:

  • Negative thoughts, which are often repetitive
  • “I can’t cope”
  • “There’s too much to do, it’s impossible”
  • “There’s nobody to help me”
  • “I should be able to deal with this”

Behaviours might include:

  • Inability to concentrate or make decisions
  • Eating more or less
  • Becoming easily irritated or impatient
  • Withdrawing from people
  • Procrastination or avoiding tasks
  • Drinking more caffeine or alcohol

These feelings, thoughts, symptoms and behaviours can end up becoming a ‘vicious cycle’, with one leading to another.

How you can support someone who’s feeling stressed

Offer a listening ear. This will show them they have support if they need it, and give them a chance to talk things through. They might just want to get things off their mind – or they might welcome help or advice with identifying the source of their stress, and managing and lowering their stress levels.

Help them to problem solve. If there’s a specific cause behind their stress, you could help them get clarity on what to do about it. For example, if they have too much to do, you could help them to make a list of everything, prioritise what’s urgent, and delegate some of it!

Encourage them to take time for themselves. This isn’t selfish or unproductive – not doing so can actually affect our ability to get things done, as well as having an impact on our mood and health. Doing exercise, for example, releases natural endorphins that can combat some of the physical symptoms of stress.

It's also important to have activities and hobbies that act as ‘holes in the bucket’! If rain keeps falling into a bucket that has no holes in it, at some point the water will overflow. Stress is a bit like this. It can be especially helpful to do something that absorbs a lot of focus and concentration. Getting into the flow calms the mind, and helps to reduce symptoms such as a rapid heart-rate or muscle tension.

Offer a fresh perspective. Sometimes people feel stressed because of rules they’ve imposed on themselves. There are two types of demands. External demands are the things we really have to do. Internal demands are those we place on ourselves – for instance that we must finish our to-do list by the end of the week.

You could help your friend, family member or colleague to challenge the rules that are putting them under pressure. Ask: “Is this true? Do you really have to do this? Can anything wait? If you don’t clean the car every weekend, what will happen?”.

CBT provides highly effective strategies for managing stress – for instance by helping people to understand how their thoughts and feelings are connected, and can change how they cope with certain situations. Individuals can self-refer for treatment here.

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