Stress can have a huge impact on both our physical and mental health, stop us from doing the things that matter to us, and affect every arena of our lives. It’s worth taking seriously.

Recognising stress when it happens 

Stress will look different to all of us, and often the best thing we can do for ourselves is to learn to recognise our personal warning signs that we might be under a lot of stress.  

Sometimes it’s obvious what’s stressing us – maybe we’re going through a lot of changes, we recently experienced a loss or a traumatic event, or something specific is weighing on us. But often stress is accumulated over time, from a lot of different things happening in our lives. It can build up silently in the background for months or years, and we may not easily be able to identify the specific things overwhelming us. 

If you’re interested in in learning more about common signs and causes of stress, check out our companion resource here. 

Once you know you’re experiencing stress, what can you do about it? 

Taking care of yourself in the moment 

When we’re in immediately stressful situations, it can kick off a lot of overwhelming feelings, and sometimes before we deal with the wider causes and symptoms of stress, we need to get through the thing that’s right in front of us. 

Sometimes, we have no choice but to push through something which makes us feel stressed, panicky or overwhelmed. If there’s an option to do so, you may find it helpful to leave the situation and take a break before you come back, or try some grounding exercises – there are some ideas here.  

It can also help you get through a stressful task if you know you will give yourself rest on the other side of it. For example, if you have a meeting which you’re really stressed about, you might decide that getting through the meeting is your only goal for that day, and that you’ll make time afterwards to do something nice for yourself. 

Stress can come with a lot of overwhelming feelings, and sometimes we also need room to feel them. We can feel pressured to pretend we’re fine, but over time that can increase stress. If you can find somewhere safe to express your emotions, it can really help get through something stressful. If you need to cry or break down, see whether you can find a safe space to do that. If you’re feeling really angry or frustrated, it can be helpful to express that too – try going somewhere on your own to scream, punching a pillow or punching bag, or finding other ways to let off steam without harming yourself or others. 

Five ways to cope with stress 

Everyone is different, and what works for some people might not work for you, but here are five ways you could explore to deal with stress more long-term. 

1. Identify your triggers 

If you can begin to unpack what specifically causes you stress, it can make you more able to anticipate problems and find ways to either avoid them or come up with strategies to cope with them. 

It may not be only one thing stressing you – in fact, when you lay out the things which trigger stress responses, you may be surprised by how much you’re dealing with! When we’re stressed, it can feel like we’re doing way less than usual, when actually we may be doing a really good job of coping with lots of things at once without noticing. 

Try taking some time to reflect on what could be contributing to your stress, either alone or with someone you trust.  

Think about what things in your life are connected to symptoms of stress – they might be things you worry about or dread dealing with, things that make you feel ill or overwhelmed to think about, parts of your life where you feel you’re losing control or confidence, or things that feel like they’re taking up most of your time. It could also include areas where there’s not enough of something, as well as areas where there’s too much – you might be feeling a lack of structure, missing social contact, responsibility or agency, or you might feel ‘stuck in a rut’ and as if there isn’t enough change. 

You might want to explore: 

  • Issues that come up regularly (for example paying bills, attending appointments, or going to a specific place) 
  • People in your life who you worry about or who you find stressful to be around 
  • One-off events that are on your mind a lot. This could be things in your future (like moving house or sitting an exam) which you’re worried about, or things that have happened recently (like losing someone, leaving work, or having a big argument) which you’re dwelling on or dealing with the aftermath of. 
  • Ongoing stressful events, like care responsibilities, problems at work, bullying, or anything else which you’re dealing with day to day. 

Just the act of laying out all the things you’re worried about can be helpful. When we’re stressed, often one of the things we’re spending energy on is keeping track of everything we’re worried about. When we’re able to take the time to figure out what we’re actually stressed about and deal with each thing on its own, it can feel much more manageable, even if there’s still lots to do. 

Once you’ve got a list of the things that are worrying you, you might find it helpful to break them down into things that have a practical solution, things that will improve over time, and things that you can’t do anything to change. That way, you can focus your energy on the places it will help the most. 

“I really didn’t realise how much I was dealing with until I laid it all out. It feels a lot more manageable when it’s a list of specific things I can figure out how to deal with, instead of this sort of cyclone of stressful, urgent, poorly-defined stuff that seems to be constantly happening without any rhyme or reason.” 

2. Take control of your time 

When we’re feeling stressed, we can often feel overwhelmed with all of the tasks we’re trying to complete. Making some changes to how you spend your time could help you to handle the pressure. 

Some ideas for making the most of the time you have could include: 

  • Think about what time of day you are most productive, and do the tasks that will take up the most energy in those times 
  • Set yourself smaller and more realistic targets 
  • Make a list of everything that you have to do, and arrange it in order of importance. Give yourself permission to put things down for the time being if they don’t truly need to happen right now, or if someone else can take them on. 
  • Ask for help. You don’t have to do everything yourself, and often people may not realise you’re struggling.  
  • Take breaks and go slow. This can feel counterproductive, but it can actually help you do way more than trying to rush through and getting overwhelmed.  
  • Take things one step at a time 

It can help to think about what works best for you. For example, if you’re someone who can easily focus on one task for a long time, you might like to try doing short tasks early in the day, so you can focus on bigger tasks without running out of time. On the other hand, if you’re someone who gets easily distracted or runs out of energy fast, you might be happier doing the longer tasks first, and short, simple tasks once you no longer have the motivation to keep going with the first thing. 

Remember, you don’t have to do everything all at once. It’s almost always better to have done half a task than to have done none of it. If you’ve done the laundry but run out of time to fold it, you still have clean clothes. Give yourself space to do as much as you can do, and come back to it later if you need to.  

“When I get overwhelmed I often can’t tell the difference between things that are actually urgent and things that I think should happen sometime. Writing out tasks, deciding when they actually need done by, and giving myself a couple of priorities for the day really helps me feel calmer – even if I don’t finish any of them, I know I’ve made progress.” 

3. Be kind to yourself 

Looking after your wellbeing can help you build resilience and feel more able to manage stress. Be kind to yourself – you’re working hard, and you deserve to be treated well.  

Looking after your wellbeing can mean lots of different things to lots of people, but there’s lots you can try. 

  • Make time to actively relax. Relaxing doesn’t just mean doing nothing – often, doing an activity you enjoy or switching up your routine can help you relax even more than laying on the couch all day (although sometimes we might need that too!) Treat yourself and your relaxation as important. Consciously make time for it as you would for any other task, and protect that time for yourself – even if you don’t end up doing the activity you planned, try to avoid spending your relaxation time working on other things. It can feel frustrating or counterproductive to spend time relaxing when it feels like there’s so much to do, but time spent relaxing isn’t wasted – it will help you deal with those other things better if you can come back rested. 
  • Look for balance in your life. Think about what takes up most of your time – you might find that your job, housework, or family responsibilities are taking up most of your energy. Try to focus some of your time on other areas of your life, like doing things you love, or seeing people who make you happy. We can feel under a lot of pressure to fill every hour with work and responsibility – your happiness and wellbeing is worth time too, and you’re allowed to say ‘I don’t have time to do that’ for your own sake.  
  • Get enough sleep. Getting enough sleep can make you feel better able to handle any challenges you’re facing. It can be frustrating trying to control your sleep when you’re stressed – you may be dealing with insomnia or napping on and off through the day, and it can feel like one more thing to stress about. But it can help to practise sleep hygiene, carve out time to go to bed early, give yourself time to wake up a bit more slowly in the morning, and stop trying to be productive at least an hour before you go to bed. And don’t clockwatch – remember, some sleep is better than none, so resist the urge to count how long until you’ll have to wake up again. If you’re having severe issues sleeping, your GP may be able to help. 
  • Keep an eye on how you eat. Stress can really negatively affect our ability to eat well, which can make us feel worse. You might lose your appetite entirely, snatch snacks instead of or between meals, or feel a strong urge to comfort-eat fatty, starchy or sugary foods. You may also find you’re eating/drinking a lot of stimulants like coffee, chocolate and sugar, which can make sleeping and relaxing harder. Don’t beat yourself up about what you eat, but where possible, try to make sure you’re also eating vegetables and proteins. Where you can, try to stop and eat full meals instead of snacking as you go – this makes it a lot easier to think about what you eat, and also doubles as a reason to take breaks and introduce structure into your day. 

Remember, the best way to be ready for life’s stresses is to look after yourself, so make sure your wellbeing doesn’t keep falling off the bottom of your to-do list!  

For more ideas on ways to look after yourself, try our Five Ways to Wellbeing resources. 

“Some of the most stressful times in my life have been when I haven’t really been doing anything, and because of that, I often feel really guilty about every minute I spend on myself – I feel like I should be doing something ‘useful’ instead. But when I make a conscious effort to do things like taking a walk, cooking dinner, or working on a project that’s just for me, I’m always surprised by how much more able I am to cope with doing the things I’ve been dreading.” 

4. Connect with those around you 

Remember, you’re not alone in this. Sometimes just talking to people about how you’re feeling can make a real difference.  

If you are able to talk to friends, family, colleagues, or other people in your life, you may be surprised by how ready they are to take things on. A wonderful thing about being a person is that we all have different strengths and weaknesses, and something which is a huge source of stress for you might be a positive joy for someone else. Even people who become the ‘face’ of our stress – like your boss, your teacher, the person at the bank, or a service provider – may turn out to be able to help you if they realise you’re struggling. Often, we’re so stressed we’re sure it must be obvious to everyone – but it might be that nobody has realised that a specific task is weighing on you, and they might have an easy solution. 

Speaking to people, whether strangers or friends, can also help us figure out what’s going on, get perspective and find solutions. Our friends and loved ones may notice we’re stressed long before we know ourselves, and an outside perspective might help provide some insights that are hard to see from inside when we’re overwhelmed by everything. 

If you’re looking for someone to talk to, why not try popping in to one of our Listening Spaces

“When I get super stressed, my social life is often one of the first casualties. I tend to stop going out, and I only see people when I’m looking after them or trying to get stuff done. And that’s a shame, because often for me the best way to get out of that stress spiral is to have a cup of tea and a blether with someone. It doesn’t even have to be about what’s worrying me – it just helps me to get a new perspective and find a way forwards.” 

5. Address the causes 

Address the causes 

It’s important to recognise the things that you can and can’t change. While there are some things you won’t be able to do anything about, there might still be some practical things you can do to resolve or improve some of the issues that are making you feel stressed. 

Sometimes, stress is a reaction to things in our life that need to change. It may be a sign that we need to change our approach to something, rethink our priorities, or even give some things up entirely. 

Even if we can’t make a big change all in one, we can start to think about what specific things are making life difficult, and work to address them. It might be something as big as changing jobs or ending a relationship, or something as small as getting a few extra days on a deadline or asking someone to take over a specific chore. Often, big positive changes start with those first few steps. 

Sometimes, our stress may be partly to do with much bigger problems in our community or in the world, like economic inequality, lack of services, discrimination, war or global issues, and we can’t fix them all by ourselves. But it can be helpful to take action, and to reach out to other people struggling with similar things. You could try finding ways to feel like you’re working for positive change, like campaigning, volunteering, fundraising, or getting involved in local decision-making. Working to address these problems might not stop them negatively impacting you, but it can help you get back a sense of agency. 

There are some things in our life that we can’t change, and dealing with stress around them means accepting that. It can be helpful to talk these things through, either with a therapist or a person you trust, and to work on understanding and accepting your feelings around it. 

Give yourself grace – it’s difficult dealing with things we can’t control, and it’s ok if it’s taking up a lot of your time and energy. You can give yourself space to accept what you can’t change by working out what you can do elsewhere to relieve pressure. 

“There are things in my life that are always going to be stressful. I have chronic pain and that isn’t going away, whatever I do. But there are things I can change – I can manage my work hours, make sure I have time to rest, and build more healthy, supportive relationships, so when I am dealing with a lot of pain I don’t have to balance it with all this other stuff all the time. That makes a huge difference.”