Stress is one of the biggest public health challenges that we face in the UK. In 2019, the Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, and now more than ever, millions of people are dealing with high levels of stress as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions on both home and working life.
Left unchecked and unmanaged, it can be damaging to our health in many ways, from contributing to mental health problems including anxiety and depression, to physical health problems like heart disease and digestive and immunity problems.
Much like a cold or flu, there are a variety of symptoms, and it can manifest in different ways for each person, so we individually need to understand what causes us personal stress and the impact it has on ourselves, our day–to–day lives, and on those around us. Once we’ve identified this, we can then start to learn what steps we can take in order to reduce our stress levels and begin to get ourselves back to better health.
What is Stress Awareness Month?
Held every year in April since 1992, Stress Awareness Month campaigns to increase public awareness about both the causes and the cures for our modern stress epidemic.
Stress affects all us in many different ways and can have a negative impact on not just your mental health but your physical health too. Yet while it may not be avoidable, it is still manageable. There are a range of resources available from the Stress Management Society website, the UK’s leading authority on stress management issues, from online stress tests and guides to a 30 day challenge designed to help reduce stress. However, to help you get started, here are some top tips on what you can do for yourself during Stress Awareness Month.
1. Contact your doctor
If you’re feeling stressed and it’s having an impact on your daily life, your first point of call should be your doctor. Most GPs will have dealt with many patients experiencing stress and so will be in the best position to assess your situation and provide you with advice on how best to manage your stress to help you on the path to a stress–free lifestyle.
2. Prioritise your health
In today’s fast–paced way of living we are constantly switched on. Whether it’s to spend more time on work, social media or checking in with friends and family, amongst other things, we are quick to sacrifice looking after ourselves simply to give us more time elsewhere in the day, which can quickly lead to stress. One of the most important ways to deal with the effects of stress is to put your health first and incorporate regular exercise, staying hydrated and eating well into your daily routine.
3. Get a good night’s sleep
Stress triggers a release of hormones which we commonly know as the fight–or–flight response. While it’s normal to feel stressed occasionally, continually being in this mode can impact our health in the long term. One effect of chronic feelings of stress is sleep deprivation, as the heightened state of alertness can delay the onset of sleep and cause rapid, anxious thoughts to occur at night. Insufficient sleep can then cause further stress. Combat this by looking after your health (see tip #2) and implementing a few additional lifestyle changes, including lowering your caffeine and alcohol intake and reducing screen time, particularly in the evening.
4. Practice deep breathing
One of the most effective ways of dealing with stress is to learn how to quiet the mind. Mindfulness meditation is one of the most popular techniques to help you achieve this and promotes a feeling of relaxation to make you more aware of the present moment. The aim is not to silence the mind, but rather to become aware of and acknowledge all the thoughts, emotions and sensations happening within and outside of the body without reacting to them. Mindfulness meditation can lead to improvements in anxiety, depression and stress, so try practicing mindfulness for as little as 10 minutes in the morning to help you face the day, or before bedtime to help clear your mind and improve your sleep.
5. Talk to someone
Talking about things that are bothering you can be very beneficial. Not only does talking about it openly and freely with friends, family and colleagues help to reduce the stigma that’s associated with stress, it can also help to reduce your stress levels. Self–talk can also be a useful tool for stress reduction; however, it’s important to ensure self–talk is positive and not negative, in order for it to work. For example, if you find that you’re talking negatively to yourself and saying things like ‘I can’t do this’, replace it with positive language by saying ‘I can do this’ or ‘I’m doing the best I can’.
6. Adopt a positive mindset
This links in with the previous point about self–talk. Changing negative self–talk to positive self–talk can greatly reduce stress, and positive thinking has been proven to help with stress management and improving your overall health. Positive thinking doesn’t mean you ignore less pleasant situations or pretend everything is okay – it simply means you approach unpleasantness in a more productive way, by looking for silver linings and opportunities instead of seeing the worst–case scenario. Being in control of your thoughts and thinking positively increases your ability to find solutions to challenging situations and to deal more effectively with stress.
7. Turn off the tech
We often want to keep up to date with what is happening in the world; however, too much exposure to media (be it print, digital or social) can be detrimental to our health. Whether it’s an abundance of negative news stories or social media influencers posting endless photos of a glamorous jet set lifestyle, information overload can heighten feelings of stress and affect various elements of our wellbeing including sleep, confidence and self–esteem. Try disconnecting from your TV, laptop, phone or tablet and having some screen–free time to focus on other things you might not normally make time for.
8. Go easy on yourself
Last but definitely not least, the most important thing you can do when you are stressed or anxious is to make sure you look after yourself. Accept that you can’t do or control everything, no matter how hard you try, so stop thinking you can. Instead, make time to relax when you need to and do something that you enjoy, and learn to say no to requests or invitations that are too much for you.