There are several reasons why you might be experiencing stress or anxiety. But the most important thing is to work out how to manage these feelings so you can minimise their impact on your quality of life.
Often, the first step can be to acknowledge your feelings, as then you can take steps to start feeling better.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at what anxiety and stress are and offer tips on how to cope.
What is stress?
At present, there’s no medical definition of stress. But it tends to be a feeling we get when we’re overloaded or unable to cope with the demands we’re facing.
Our bodies and minds tend to respond to these feelings by showing symptoms such as…
- Muscle tension
- Headaches or dizziness
- Problems sleeping
- Constant worrying
- Eating too much or too little
- Feeling tearful or crying
What is anxiety?
When we feel anxious, we tend to feel tense, worried, or nervous. Sometimes, this anxiety doesn’t have a clear trigger, and we may simply feel this way about everyday tasks. Other times, this anxiety may be related to specific things that are about to happen or might happen in the future.
Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we might be under threat. It happens when our bodies release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which…
- 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 we can act faster
Once we perceive that the threat is over, our muscles relax again, after which we may feel tired and shaky.
It’s normal to experience anxiety occasionally – for instance, if you’re going through a stressful situation or adjusting to a big change. But if those feelings of anxiety become particularly strong and last a long time, they can significantly impact your mental health.
Symptoms of anxiety include…
- 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 are worried about the future. Whatever your reason for feeling stressed or anxious, returning your mind to the present moment can offer some relief.
Many of us struggle with this, especially when life gets busy. It can be easy to spend our time rushing around and planning our next steps, rather than focusing on what currently is.
But one of the most effective ways to live in the here and now is to practice mindfulness. This tool can help us foster a greater awareness of feelings, sensations, and surroundings at any given moment.
For example, do you ever just stop and focus on the breath entering and leaving your body? Or actively try to appreciate each mouthful of your dinner, rather than absentmindedly eating whilst watching TV or thinking about something else?
Often, we feel stressed or anxious because we feel like we lack control. Mindfulness can help us feel calmer and more in control of our bodies and thoughts, which makes it much easier to enjoy and appreciate the little things we often ignore, instead of worrying about the future.
If you want to give it a try, there are plenty of tips to help you get started in our introductory guide to mindfulness and our article; 10 everyday activities that can help you stay in the present moment.
2. Do something active
When you feel stressed or anxious, perhaps the last thing you want to do is exercise – maybe because you don’t feel like you have the time or simply want to curl up and hide from the world.
But it’s important to remember that exercise is just as good for our minds as it is for our bodies.
A good workout can affect the chemical balance of our hormones. It can reduce cortisol levels (our stress and anxiety hormones) and stimulate the production of endorphins (our happy hormones).
Research has shown that physical activity can help to combat racing thoughts, improve self-esteem, and encourage better sleep, all of which contribute to a greater sense of wellbeing. You can learn about the link between exercise and brain health in our article; How exercise can lead to better brain health.
Doing something active simply means moving more. This doesn’t have to involve doing something overly strenuous if you’re not up for it. It could include anything from doing some gardening or chores to going for a run or to a gym class.
You’ll 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 and 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 many negative thoughts. These could be things like “I can’t cope”, “I’m so useless”, or “I’m a failure.”
First and foremost, try to remember that these are merely thoughts, which will pass, and are no reflection of you or your future.
There are two common ways that we can think about and label negative thoughts so we can spot them and challenge them. The first type of thought can be described as ‘Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs)’. These thoughts, like those listed above, 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 common type of negative thinking is ‘catastrophising‘, which can lead us to look at the future with a negative lens and always predict the worst outcome. For example, we might think, “I’m never going to get a job”, “I’m not going to be able to pay my mortgage”, or “I can’t go. What if no one likes me?”
It can be helpful to identify when we’re entering into either of these negative thought patterns to challenge them, rather than simply accepting them.
Whenever you have a negative thought, take a moment to consider whether it’s reality and how you’d feel if a friend spoke about themselves or their situation in this way. Chances are, you’d disagree with them, and offer them reassurance and advice instead.
If you can show compassion to others, you can also be kind to yourself. So consider how you’d 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 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, we can see that there are other ways of thinking about things and that our thoughts are changeable.
If you’re struggling with negative thoughts, you might find some useful guidance in our articles, How to learn the skill of optimism and 8 tips on how to break negative habits and develop positive ones.
4. Help someone else
Many of us find it difficult to help ourselves, but much easier to lend a hand to someone else. And research has shown on many occasions that helping others can give us a sense of reward and purpose, which can boost our mood.
It’s also possible that while we’re busy helping someone else, we simply don’t have time to stress or worry about what’s going on in our own lives. Helping others is also a great way to make new connections and strengthen old ones – which science suggests can also relieve stress.
If you’re interested in giving your time to help others, there are plenty of ideas in the volunteering section of our website – from caring for animals to helping homeless people. There are also lots of virtual volunteering opportunities if you want to get involved from the comfort of your own home.
But remember, often it’s the small things that count. You could take time to check in with someone in your community who lives alone or offer to help a neighbour with their shopping.
It’s worth exploring ways to help others that fit easily into your life, as you’ll probably feel compelled to do it more often. And the more you do, the better you’ll hopefully feel.
For more ideas, you might want to check out our article; 18 meaningful ways to help others and give back to your community.
5. Steer clear of unhealthy habits
Attempts to deal with stress and anxiety can be helpful or harmful.
Many people find that unhealthy habits spiral out of control when used as coping mechanisms. For example, you may start smoking or drinking more, eating too many sugary or fatty foods, or regularly sleeping until lunchtime.
While these kinds of behaviours may make you feel better for a few minutes or hours – in the long run, they can make you feel worse, both mentally and physically.
Although it can be difficult, it’s much better to find other ways to deal with your feelings. For example, rather than ordering a takeaway and letting your mind run wild, why not take your time to cook something from scratch?
Cooking can be an effective form of mindfulness and knowing that we’re eating healthy, fresh meals can also make us feel much more positive. Take a look at our articles; 12 healthy recipe ideas or 9 baking ideas with a healthy twist for some inspiration.
Or, if you’re struggling to get out of bed in the morning because you’re feeling overwhelmed, you could try starting your day with a stress-relieving activity that you enjoy – like reading, running, or taking a relaxing bath.
Our article, 8 tips on how to break negative habits and develop positive ones, has plenty more ideas that you might find useful.
And remember, what we want and what we need can be two very different things. So try to recognise which habits could actually be adding to your stress and anxiety in the long term.
6. Connect with others
Stress and anxiety can sometimes trick us into thinking it’s better to shut out the world and dwell on our negative thoughts. And although it’s usually difficult to force ourselves to reach out to others – we often feel better once we do.
Connecting with others has many benefits, including helping us feel less alone, taking our minds off our worries, and giving us the chance to laugh!
When we talk to others, we also tend to realise that everyone has worries and stresses, which can help to put our own issues into perspective.
So next time you’re not feeling great, and you’re preparing for a night in alone, why not make a conscious effort to pick up the phone and talk to a friend or family member? Or even invite them over? Humans are social creatures, and we aren’t designed to go through life alone – so it’s important to reach out.
If you’re struggling to connect with others, you might find some helpful ideas in our article; 7 different ways to meet new people. From friendship apps to neighbourhood hubs and support groups, there’s hopefully something to suit everyone.
You might also want to consider joining Rest Less Events, where you’ll find plenty of online social groups to join, including book and lunch clubs.
7. Spend more time with your pet
Animals are great stress relievers and can offer an escape from the worries of everyday life.
If you’ve ever been greeted at the front door by a wagging tail after a bad day, you’ll know that pets can make you temporarily forget whatever you were worrying about.
The fantastic thing about animals 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 great things in our lives – like our pets! Try putting negative thoughts aside and spending 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, you might find it helpful to read our article; 10 benefits of owning a pet.
It’s important to try to recognise when your stress or anxiety is becoming too much for you to manage on your own. Sometimes, it might be enough to talk through your feelings with a trusted friend or family member, and talk through your feelings – but other times, it might not be.
If you find you’re struggling to cope, it’s worth booking an appointment with your GP, who can talk you through the options available. For stress related to your work, it can also help to sit down with your employer and let them know how you’re feeling so they can take steps to support you.
You could also try contacting a charity like the Samaritans or the Silver Line, who are available to answer your calls 24/7, every day of the year. They won’t judge or tell you what to do – they’ll simply listen for as long as you need.
If you feel uncomfortable speaking on the phone or are worried about being overheard, you can always email Samaritans instead, and they’ll respond within 24 hours.
Did you find this page helpful? Have you found other ways to cope with stress and anxiety? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.