There are a number of reasons why you might be experiencing stress or anxiety. The most important thing is to work out how to manage these feelings, so that you can minimise their impact on your quality of life. Often the first step can be to acknowledge your feelings, so that you can understand what is happening and take the appropriate course of action to start feeling better.
What is stress?
- Muscle tension
- Headaches or dizziness
- Problems sleeping
- Constant worrying
- Eating too much or too little
- Feeling tearful or crying
What is anxiety?
- make our hearts beat faster to pump blood to where it’s needed most in case we need to respond to the threat.
- make us feel more alert so that we can act faster.
- Feeling sick
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive sweating
- Pins and needles
- Feeling “on edge”
- A sense of dread
7 tips to help you cope with stress and anxiety
1. Focus your mind on the present
Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed, have a lot on your mind or you’re worried about the future. Whatever your reason for feeling stressed or anxious, it can really help to bring your mind back to the present moment. Many of us struggle with this, especially when life gets busy – it can be all too easy to spend our time rushing around and planning our next step, rather than focusing on what currently is.
One of the most effective ways at bringing your full attention to the present is by practicing mindfulness – a tool designed to help you have greater awareness of your feelings, sensations and surroundings in any given moment e.g. sights, smells, sounds, tastes etc. For example, do you ever just stop and focus on the breath entering and leaving your body? Or how often do you stop and appreciate each mouthful of your dinner, rather than absentmindedly eating whilst watching TV or thinking about something else? Often the reason we feel stressed or anxious is because we feel like we have a lack of control, and mindfulness can help you to feel calmer and more in control of your body and your thoughts. This makes it much easier to enjoy and appreciate the little things that we often ignore in everyday life, rather than worrying about the future.
2. Do something active
When you feel stressed or anxious, it may be that the last thing that you want to do is put on your gym clothes and head to the gym or go for a long walk – maybe because you don’t feel that you have the time, or perhaps because you simply want to curl up and hide from the world. But it’s important to keep in mind that exercise is just as good for our minds, as it is our bodies. It can affect the chemical balance of our hormones by reducing cortisol levels (the hormone responsible for anxiety) and stimulating the production of endorphins, the chemicals in the brain responsible for feelings of optimism and relaxation. Research has shown that physical activity can help us to combat racing thoughts, improve our self-esteem and help us to sleep better, all of which contribute to greater wellbeing.
Doing something active simply means moving more. This doesn’t have to involve doing something overly strenuous if you’re really not up for it. It could include anything from doing some gardening, to playing with your dog through to going for a gentle swim. You will know your limits and what you’re capable of, but the key thing is to try and overcome any thoughts telling you that the solution is to stay at home at hide. Convince yourself that you’ll feel better if you don’t, and hopefully you will!
3. Challenge negative thoughts
When our mood is suffering, it’s not uncommon for us to have lots of negative thoughts. These could be things like “I can’t cope” or “I’m so useless” or “I’m a failure.” First and foremost, please try to remember that these are merely thoughts – thoughts will pass, and are no reflection on you, or your future.
There are two common ways that we can think about and label negative thoughts so that we can spot them and challenge them. The first type of thought can be described as Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs). These are thoughts like those listed above, that make you feel bad about yourself and are self-sabotaging. They often pop into our heads uninvited and are very critical. The other type of negative thinking that is very common is catastrophizing, which can lead us to look at the future with a negative lense and always predict the worst outcome, for example “I’m never going to get a job” or “I’m not going to be able to pay my mortgage” or “I can’t go. What if no one likes me?”
It’s helpful to identify when we are entering into either of these negative thought patterns, so that we can challenge these thoughts, rather than simply accepting them. Whenever you have a negative thought, take a moment to consider whether it’s accurate and how you would feel if a friend spoke about themselves or their situation in this way. Chances are, you wouldn’t agree with them – you would offer them reassurance and advice. If you can be kind to others in this way, then you can also be kind to yourself. Try to think about how you would view yourself and your own situation if you were being positive. Ask yourself, “what’s the best thing that could happen?” and “what are the good things that I’ve done today?” Often we can get so used to being down on ourselves that it becomes the norm, but once we start to challenge this norm we can see that there are other ways of thinking about things, and that our thoughts are changeable.
Our article, How to learn the skill of optimism, offers some useful tips on how to find small positives and new opportunities – even when things get tough.
4. Help someone else
Oddly, many of us find it hard to help ourselves, but much easier to lend a hand to someone else. Research has shown on many occasions that helping others can help to give us a feeling of reward and a sense of purpose, which can boost our mood. It is also possible that while we are busy helping someone else, we are so focussed on that person, that we simply don’t have time to spend time stressing and worrying about our own lives.
The way that you choose to help someone else is entirely up to you e.g. you could try volunteering for a charity, helping a friend with a problem or running an errand for a neighbour. Helping others is also a great way to make new connections, and strengthen old ones.
Try to find a way of helping others that fits easily into your life and suits you. If you can do this, then chances are you will feel compelled to do it more often, and the more you do, the better you may feel.
5. Steer clear of unhealthy habits
Attempts to deal with stress and anxiety can be either helpful or harmful. Many people find that unhealthy habits spiral out of control when used as a coping mechanism e.g. you may start smoking or drinking more, eating too many sugary or fatty foods or regularly sleeping until lunchtime. Whilst these things may make you feel better for a few minutes or a few hours, in the long run, they can make you feel both mentally and physically worse.
Although it can be really hard, it’s much better to find other ways to deal with your feelings. For example, rather than staying at home with a take-away and letting your mind run wild, why not invite a friend round and cook something from scratch? Or if you’re struggling to get out of bed in the morning because you’re feeling overwhelmed, then you could try starting your morning with something that you look forward to and that could alleviate some stress – like a brisk morning walk with your dog.
What we want, and what we need, can be two very different things, so try to recognise which habits could actually be making your stress and anxiety worse over the long term.
6. Connect with others
Stress and anxiety can sometimes trick us into thinking that it’s better to shut out the world and dwell on our negative thoughts. And although it can be difficult to force ourselves out the front door or away from our work and into the arms of a friend or family member – we often feel better once we do.
Connecting with others has many benefits, including helping us feel less alone, taking our mind off the things that worry us and giving us the chance to have a laugh! When we talk to others, we also tend to realise that everyone has worries and stresses, which can help to put your own issues into perspective. So next time you’re not feeling great and you’re preparing for a night in alone, make a conscious effort to pick up the phone and talk to friend or family member, or invite them over. Humans are social creatures, who aren’t designed to go through life alone – so it’s okay to reach out.
7. Spend more time with your pet
Animals are great stress relievers and can offer an escape from the stresses and strains of everyday life. If you’ve ever had a particularly bad day and you’ve been greeted at the front door by a wagging tail, then you’ll know that they can make you temporarily forget whatever you were worrying about. The amazing thing about pets is that they tend to love you unconditionally. They know nothing about what job you do, or whether you paid your bills on time – they just want to be loved, cuddled (and for dogs, walked, which can be great for you too!).
Stress and anxiety can cause us to hone in on problems so much that we may overlook the really great things in our lives – like our pets! Try putting negative thoughts to one side and spending some more time with your pet – walking, playing or cuddling. You’ll be glad you did, and so will they!
If you don’t have a pet, but you’ve been thinking about getting one, then you might find it helpful to read our article; 10 benefits of owning a pet.
It’s important to be able to recognise when your stress or anxiety is becoming too much for you to manage on your own. Sometimes it may be enough to sit down with a trusted friend or family member and talk through your feelings, but other times it may not be.
If you find that you are struggling to cope, then you should book an appointment with your GP, who can talk you through the options available to you. For stress related to your work, it’s also worth sitting down with your employer and letting them know how you’re feeling, as they may be able to help you.
You could also try contacting a charity like the Samaritans or the Silver Line, who are available to answer your calls 24/7, everyday of the year. They won’t judge or tell you what to do – they’ll simply listen to you for as long as you need. If you feel uncomfortable speaking on the phone or you’re worried about being overheard, you can always send Samaritans an email instead and they’ll respond to you within 24 hours.