Whether it’s an increased awareness of mental health, or the greater numbers of stressors in modern life, 70% of UK adults say they have felt so stressed at some point that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope in the past year. One-off events can lead to a period of intense but acute symptoms of stress, which we can generally recover from without ill effects. However, chronic stress symptoms can also occur from ongoing stress or stress that keeps returning.

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Next, discover 10 tips to manage stress eating, take a look at the role talk therapy plays in gut health and find out what is burnout. Also find out what are the symptoms of anxiety? [LINK TO NEW FEATURE WHEN LIVE]

What is stress?

Stress is defined as "a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives." We will all experience stress to some extent, however how we respond to stress really impacts on our physical and psychological wellbeing.

A woman holding a balloon with a sad face drawn onto it

What are the symptoms of stress?

There are some common emotional, cognitive, behavioural and physical symptoms of stress to look out for:

Emotions:

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  • A sense of dread and tension
  • Feeling unable to relax, which can in turn lead to feeling irritable and angry
  • Feeling overwhelmed, out of control, and unable to cope

Thoughts:

  • Being preoccupied with the stressors in repeated thoughts and conversations with others
  • Racing thoughts that are hard to hold onto
  • Being more forgetful than previously
  • Concentration and focus difficulties, and being less productive than usual

Physical signs of stress:

  • Changes to your sleep, such as struggling to fall or stay asleep, or wanting to sleep all the time
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, migraines, gastro issues and flare-ups on any existing health conditions (e.g. fibromyalgia, eczema, IBS, cirrhosis)
  • Pain from tension in your jaw, neck and lower back
  • Changes to appetite, which can include eating much more or less than usual

Behaviour changes:

  • Starting new ways of coping with stress such as drinking more alcohol, smoking/vaping, and drugs. Smaller habits can also start like biting your nails or pulling your eyelashes/hair out as a way to cope with stress (trichotillomania).
  • Stopping activities that you previously enjoyed as they feel too burdensome, such as exercise, hobbies and socialising

A woman looking calm

What should I do if I think I am stressed?

Self-help ideas for stress

  • First and foremost, try to pause and identify the specific sources of stress for you. For example, are they financial, work-related, parenting/caring responsibilities, health concerns?
  • Think about stressors in terms of glass balls and bouncy balls. The glass balls are the priorities that you simply cannot drop, but the bouncy balls can bounce a while without you needing to be there. Are there stressors or responsibilities that you can hand to others? Any commitments or deadlines you can push back to give yourself some breathing room? Anything you can say ‘no’ to altogether?
  • Self-care can help in building resilience to cope with stress and to ensure good general health and wellbeing. However, it is so often neglected when we are stressed. Try to prioritise good quality sleep, eating nutritious food, some small form of movement each day, and taking regular breaks to recharge your batteries. Taking time to connect with what you find fun, relaxing and restful all help to ‘fill your cup’ and build resilience for what life brings us.

Where to find help for stress

  • Consider if there are family or friends who you can speak to. Can you ask for support such as childcare and completing practical tasks?
  • Consider if talking to a qualified professional may be needed, such as a counsellor, clinical or counselling psychologist or psychiatrist. They can help with gaining clarity about your stressors and supporting you to solve problems and develop different coping strategies.
  • If you are experiencing work-related stress, speak to your line manager or HR about what you are finding stressful and ask what they can do to support you. These could be changes to your workload, tasks and working hours.
  • If your stressors are finance-related, speak to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or a debt agency to see if you can develop a payment plan.
  • 32% of adults have experienced suicidal thoughts and 16% have self-harmed because of stress. If you are contemplating these, please seek help from your GP, the Samaritans (call 116 123) or SHOUT (text 85258).
  • If you are using alcohol or drugs to cope with stress, try to think about whether these are helping or potentially having long-terms effects, and try to access support to cut down or stop if you feel able to.

What should I do to help cope with stress?

Stress can be insidious and it can be hard to notice it increasing over time. Spotting the early signs of stress can help you to work out what is contributing and make any adjustments possible to reduce stress. Whilst it isn’t possible to remove all potential stressors and pressures on us, it can really help to ensure that you are aware of your own signs of stress, prioritise self-care and seek help when you need to.

Enjoyed this? Read more:

10 tips to manage stress-eating
How being stressed can cause belly fat
What is stress and how to reduce it
10 diet and lifestyle tips to help manage stress
What is burnout?


Dr Laura Keyes is a Clinical Psychologist, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and is an Accredited EMDR Therapist. She runs a private practice open to children and adults, offering psychological therapy for common mental health difficulties and assessments for neurodivergence (Autism & ADHD) in Bedfordshire & the surrounding counties: drlaurakeyes.com

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