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?

At present, there is no medical definition of stress but it tends to be a feeling that people get when they are feeling overloaded or unable to cope with the demands we face. Our bodies and minds tend to respond to these feelings by showing symptoms such as:

  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches or dizziness
  • Indigestion
  • Problems sleeping
  • Irritability
  • 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 that might happen in the future.

Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we may be under threat. Our bodies release hormones such as 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 that we can act faster

Once we perceive that the threat is over, our muscles relax again, after which you may feel extra-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 are lasting a long time, then they can start to have a significant impact on your mental health.

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Tiredness
  • Feeling sick
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excessive sweating
  • Pins and needles
  • Restlessness
  • 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 of bringing your full attention to the present is by practising 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 exercise – maybe because you don’t feel that you have the time or perhaps 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.

A good workout 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. You can find out more 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 really not up for it. It could include anything from doing some gardening and playing with your dog, to going for a run. 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 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 catastrophising, which can lead us to look at the future with a negative lens 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’re 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. Instead, you’d 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.

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

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 focused on that person that we simply don’t have time to spend time stressing and worrying about our own lives.

If you’re interested in volunteering as a way to help others, you’ll hopefully find some ideas on the volunteering section of our site, where there’s everything from caring for animals, to helping the homeless. There are also plenty of virtual volunteer opportunities that you can do from home

But remember, often it’s the small things that count; you could take time to call someone in your community who lives alone and may be feeling lonely or offer to help a neighbour with their shopping.

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’ll 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, for example, you may start smoking or drinking more, eating too many sugary or fatty foods, or regularly sleeping until lunchtime. While 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 difficult, it’s much better to find other ways to deal with your feelings. For example, rather than ordering a take-away and letting your mind run wild, why not cook something from scratch? You could have a read of 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, 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. If you’re unsure where to begin, you might find it helpful to read our article; 8 tips on how to break negative habits and develop positive ones.

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 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 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 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 okay to reach out.

If you’re struggling to connect with others, you might be interested in reading our article: 7 different ways to meet new people. From friendship apps to neighbourhood hubs and support groups, there’s something to suit everyone.

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.

And finally…

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 talk through your feelings 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.

Did you find this page helpful? Have you found other ways to cope with stress and anxiety? We’d love to hear from you! Join the conversation over on the Rest Less community forum or leave a comment below.

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