We all know what stress is, but it can be hard to put into words. For one, there is no agreed definition. Stress is an overwhelming feeling in response to a situation or events that put us under pressure. Stress is also the effects on our bodies of these pressures.
In a recent poll by the Mental Health Foundation, three out of four felt so overwhelmed by stress that we were unable to cope in the last 12 months. Overeating and eating unhealthy food were the top coping strategies and were used by almost half of the respondents. One in three used alcohol to cope, and one in eight started or increased smoking.
All stress, however, is not the same. There is good stress, which motivates us to do our best at the things that matter. Small doses of good stress, for example in preparation for an exam, can help in keeping our focus and enthusiasm towards whatever we are trying to achieve. But beyond a healthy amount of stress, both health and performance deteriorate.
Here is a two-step strategy to keep stress under control.
Step 1: Recognise when stress stops being helpful
Learn your early warning signs. These are the first signs that you might be experiencing more than just good stress. Examples include:
• Physical exhaustion
• Difficulty concentrating
• Restless sleep
• Avoidance of people or situations
• Overeating or loss of appetite
• Relying on junk food and alcohol
• Not feeling your normal self
• Feeling ineffective
• Physical symptoms without a physical cause
• Irritability and tearfulness
• Difficulty relaxing
• Low self-esteem
Step 2: Improve your coping skills
Prevention is better than cure. Once you notice the first signs of stress, take action:
• Identify the underlying causes
• Focus on what matters the most
• Take a step back and look at the bigger picture
• Talk to supportive friends and family
• Eat healthily, reduce smoking, alcohol, and caffeine
• Take time out
• Smile and laugh
• Practice regularly mindfulness and relaxation
• Take a deep breath
• Be kind to yourself
If this strategy offers no relief, don’t suffer in silence. Talk to a mental health professional.
Dr Nick Zygouris
Dr Nick is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and a Lecturer at London South Bank University. He is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. He has over 15 years of experience working as a Psychologist in Mental Health Care.