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How to recognise and manage stress

April 10, 2023

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Life doesn’t always run smoothly, and things like health, work, care-giving and relationships can add a certain amount of pressure. However, it’s important that we recognise when we’re going through a stressful period, so that we can figure out how to manage the situation. If stressors in our lives aren’t dealt with, they can pile up and negatively impact our physical and mental health.


What is stress?

Stress is a natural response that happens when we feel like the demands in life seem too great to cope with. If we have too much on our plate, or not enough time or capacity to complete our tasks, this triggers our threat system and our bodies have a fight or flight reaction, where we either get ready to fight or run away. A certain level of stress isn't necessarily a bad thing; if there were no demands placed on us, we’d be bored. However, too much stress for prolonged periods of time can lead to anxiety symptoms, like irritability, anger and, eventually, burnout.


Symptoms of stress 

Stress can affect us in lots of ways, from our minds to our bodies and our behaviour. It’s important to realise that different people can tolerate different levels of stress, and the way we react to pressure isn’t always the same. These are some common signs of stress that you may experience.


Emotional symptoms:

  • Feeling anxious, or unable to control worrying
  • Negative thought cycles
  • Feeling down or depressed
  • Heightened emotions (feeling agitated or tearful often)
  • Lack of motivation or self-confidence
  • Feeling like the worst will happen


Mental symptoms:

  • Struggling to remember things
  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Unable to make decisions


Physical symptoms:

  • Struggling to sleep
  • Muscle tension and clenching your jaw
  • Headaches and blurred vision
  • Chest pains and shortness of breath
  • Sweating more than usual
  • Sickness, constipation, diarrhoea


Behavioural problems:

  • Using substances more frequently, for example, alcohol and tobacco
  • Problems in your relationships
  • No longer enjoying the things that you used to
  • Avoiding stressful situations, even when they need to be addressed


How to manage stress

In our busy lives, it’s easy for stress to be accepted as normal, or even, inevitable. We’re too often expected to deal with whatever comes our way, especially at work when there are limited resources, or when balancing work with care-giving. Some people may feel like they should just get on with it, but the truth is that we all deserve to feel calm and in control of our emotions.


Recognise when you’re feeling stressed

When we’re used to feeling stressed, we may not always notice it creeping up on us. That’s why it’s important to take the time to check in with our feelings, especially during times that we’re likely to find more stressful, for example, a looming deadline, moving house or working on a big project. By becoming aware of stress in our lives, we can take control and put actions in place to reduce pressures before they overwhelm us.


Build your resilience to pressure

This may sound easier said than done, but when you encounter stress, try to see it as an opportunity to learn how you can cope with it better next time. The better the strategy you have in place to manage the pressures in your life, the less likely those pressures are to turn into feelings of stress. This could include things like prioritising your time, remembering to de-stress or setting boundaries between your work and home life. You can read more about how to build your resilience to stress here.


Take time to de-stress

If feelings of stress aren't dealt with, they tend to pileup. Think of it like a bucket that you carry with you, which slowly fills up as you experience different types of stress. We have to lighten the load of the bucket so that it doesn’t overflow. There are lots of ways that we can unwind to feel calmer, like meditation, reading, controlled breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Plus, never underestimate the wonders of a good night’s sleep. Here are some relaxation exercises that you can try at home:


Controlled breathing

Find somewhere comfortable and quiet where you can either lay or sit down in peace. Breathe in through your nose and out of your mouth for five minutes, breathing out for longer than you breathe in. To make sure that you’re breathing from your diaphragm, place your hands on your stomach with your fingertips together - they should move apart as you breathe and your stomach expands. You may feel a little dizzy to start with as your brain adjusts to the increased level of oxygen, but afterwards you should feel more relaxed.


Progressive muscle relaxation

Focus on tensing different areas of your body, one at a time. Clench your muscles and release them, noticing how they relax and imagine the tension leaving your body. Try raising your eyebrows, tightly shitting your eyes, clenching your fists, raising your shoulders to touch your ears and opening your mouth widely while sticking your tongue out.


Do something you enjoy

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s a good idea to make time to do something you enjoy. This can help you to take a break from negative feelings and focus on something positive, which will help you to unwind and de-stress. It could be gardening, a yoga class, seeing friends or watching your favourite TV show. It doesn’t matter what the activity is, as long as you’re truly enjoying yourself, you’ll feel the benefits.


Try talking therapy for stress

If you feel that you’re unable to manage feelings of stress, or stress is impacting your wellbeing, you may want to seek professional help. ieso offers online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that helps to challenge your ways of thinking and give you the tools to stay in control of your mental health. It’s free for a lot of NHS patients and you can check your eligibility on our website.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.

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