How stressed are you feeling right now? Modern life is stressful – even more so lately, due to the added health, work and financial difficulties of living through a global pandemic. You’re juggling remote working with childcare and the demands of your boss, partner, friends and family – not to mention the bank. It’s no wonder you’re feeling frazzled! 1-5 November is International Stress Awareness Week – so now is a good time to reflect on the stress you’re currently under – and how you can cope with it. Try these 10 ways to manage stress to restore a bit of balance to your life.

What is stress?

Stress is very common. It’s the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure – that old evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ response. However, stress isn’t always bad. It can motivate us to achieve our goals, and can help us meet the demands of work, home and family life. But too much stress is a problem. It can affect our mood, behaviour, body and relationships. We can feel anxious and irritable, and struggle with confidence and self-esteem.

Stress may be acute, short-term and related to a specific temporary situation or circumstance; or more long-term, such as due to a stressful job, bad relationship, family difficulties, financial problems – or the ongoing stress and anxiety caused by COVID.

Chronic stress can lead to feelings of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. This is often called burnout, and points to an imbalance between what we’re giving out to the world and what we’re taking for ourselves. But things don’t have to get that bad before you take action or seek help.

How to identify stress – things to look for

Often with people who experience burnout, the signs were there. So it’s important to try to spot the signs early rather than wait until you reach that stage. But it’s not always immediately obvious that you’re suffering from stress. Here are some things to watch out for:

  • Psychological symptoms. Are you struggling to concentrate, or make even simple decisions? Do you becoming easily distracted, vague, or experiencing memory lapses? Are you feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated or unfocused? Do you have trouble sleeping? In addition to more obvious psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression, these can all be indicators that you’re under stress.
  • Emotional symptoms. These are perhaps the most obvious, and may include having mood swings, feeling irritable, frustrated, angry, tearful or out of control. You may also experience low self-esteem, lack confidence or be overly sensitive to criticism.
  • Physical symptoms. Stress can also manifest itself in physical symptoms. Among other things, these may include tiredness, panic attacks, high blood pressure, indigestion or heartburn, changes to your weight, constantly picking up colds and other infections because your immune system is weakened.
  • Behavioural symptoms. Stress can lead to behavioural changes, which may include such things as increased reliance on alcohol, caffeine or recreational drugs, workaholism, absenteeism or social withdrawal, neglecting your appearance and relationship problems.

10 ways to cope with stress

While there may be occasions when you need to quit a job or end a relationship to bring your stress levels down, often the solution isn’t quite so dramatic. Here are some stress-busting strategies to try:

  1. Identify your triggers. What stresses you the most? Is it your commute, your workload, your colleagues, a toxic family member, financial problems or essay deadlines? Or simply watching the news? Are you able to eliminate or at least reduce some of these triggers? For example, can you restructure your workload or spend less time with people who upset you? If you’re not sure what’s causing you stress, try keeping a stress journal. Note down when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, and see if you can identify a pattern. Then look for ways to lessen the stress in your life. Make a plan. What can you do to either reduce the demands on you or boost your ability to manage?
  2. Delegate. Do you take too much on? Have too much on your plate at work? Do friends always expect you to organise nights out? Or is your family overly demanding? If you’re overburdened in your work, social or family life – or frantically juggling all three – can you delegate or decrease any of your daily responsibilities? Can someone else take minutes, organise drinks or do the shopping this week?
  3. Just say ‘No’. Learning to say ‘no’ can work wonders for your stress levels! Many of us struggle to say ‘no’ or put other people’s feelings before our own. But it can leave us feeling overloaded, overwhelmed – and burnt out. Remind yourself it’s not selfish to prioritise your own wellbeing. Fill your own cup first – you can’t fill someone else’s if yours is empty! Holding this in mind can help you to say ‘no’. If you struggle to say no to your boss, to social invitations or to demands from your family, Abbie Headon’s book The Power of NO is a handy guide to setting some boundaries. It can be especially hard to achieve a healthy work-life balance these days, when so many of us are still working from home – at least some of the time. But if you can switch off those notifications and avoid replying to work emails after, say, 6pm, your life will feel more balanced.
  4. Practice self-care. Are you making enough time for yourself? No matter how busy you are, it’s really important to make time to do the things that nourish you. Commit to doing at least one thing a day that’s just for you. Balance the things you have to do with things that are good for your wellbeing and bring you joy. For example, make time for an online yoga class, or to read a chapter of your favourite book in your lunch break. This will help protect you against burnout.
  5. Exercise. Don’t forget to look after yourself physically too: eat well, drink water and exercise. Regular exercise has many benefits for mental health – not least because it has been shown to reduce stress. Physical activity affects how our bodies react to stress. As well as releasing endorphins, physical activity helps to relax muscles and relieve tension in the body.
  6. Breathe in… and breathe out. Instead of running around trying to do more, check in with yourself and non-judgementally label what you’re feeling and experiencing. Start each day with a short morning mindfulness meditation. Meditation gives your mind a break from the busyness of life, and creates a space for you to gain a broader perspective. Focus on your breath, and it will leave you feeling calm, centred and present for the day ahead.
  7. Find a hobby. If work or other commitments are stressing you out, why not commit yourself to something that brings you joy instead? Is there a hobby you used to enjoy but have allowed to lapse due to busyness? Doing something creative – such as playing a musical instrument, painting or writing – can feel like a real break from your day-to-day stresses. Something that absorbs your attention can help you enter a ‘flow’ state – a rewarding sense of total involvement in a task. And learning a new skill can give you a sense of ‘mastery’ – which can boost self-esteem and confidence, help you feel more in control, become more resistant to negative emotions. Hobbies are great for relieving stress!
  8. Take some time off. When’s the last time you had a holiday? You really deserve one. You should book some time off immediately! And even when you’re at work, take breaks every couple of hours to break up the day. Take your lunch break to go for a walk. True productivity requires us to be fully present so it’s important to take appropriate breaks throughout the day to keep our energy bank ‘topped up’.
  9. Give yourself a break. Give yourself a break metaphorically too. Our ‘always on’ culture can normalise working excessively, or having to be the perfect parent or partner. We can expect too much of ourselves – and feel ashamed or blame ourselves if we don’t reach these unrealistic ideals. Go easy on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect, high-achieving and driven all the time. Or, indeed, any of the time. Try reducing your effort by 25% – and see if anyone even notices. Life is hard enough without constantly pushing yourself. In The High 5 Habit, Mel Robbins offers a simple but effective tool. You’re already celebrating and supporting everyone else in your life. What if you did that for yourself too? Why not high five yourself in the mirror every morning?
  10. Speak to a therapist. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed can indicate that there are bigger issues beneath the surface. In these cases, a therapist can help you address the underlying causes. Or if you feel that you’re experiencing extreme or frequent stress, your therapist can help you identify your triggers and teach you strategies to manage it. Find out how you can get started with My Online Therapy.

Stress often feels like something that’s happening to us, caused by external factors that we have no control over. And it’s true that stress is an unavoidable part of life. But we can decide how we respond to it – a key life skill is to learn how to live with and manage it. By adopting some of these stress management techniques, you can live a calmer and more balanced life.