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Stress management

This leaflet gives some general tips on how to manage stress. However, contact a doctor if you develop persistent anxiety symptoms.

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How to manage stress

The following is a list of suggestions that may be useful for stress management. Some will be more appropriate than others for people:

Write a stress list

You can try making a list to help manage stress. Try keeping a diary over a few weeks and list the times, places and people that aggravate your stress levels. A pattern may emerge. Is it always the traffic on the way to work that sets things off to a bad start for the day? Perhaps it's the supermarket check-out, next door's dog, a work colleague, or something similar that may occur regularly and cause you stress.

Once you have identified any typical or regular causes of stress, two things may then help to manage it:

  • If you discuss this with a close friend or family member, it may help them and you to be aware of the reasons you feel stressed. Simply talking it through may help.

  • These situations can be used as cues to relax. You can use simple relaxation techniques (see below) when stressful situations occur or are anticipated. For example, try doing neck stretching exercises when you are in that traffic jam rather than getting tense and stressed.

Try simple relaxation techniques

  • Deep breathing. This means taking a long, slow breath in and very slowly breathing out. If you do this a few times and concentrate fully on breathing, you may find it quite relaxing. Some people find that moving from chest breathing to tummy (abdominal) breathing can be helpful. Sitting quietly, try putting one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy. You should aim to breathe quietly by moving your tummy, with your chest moving very little. This encourages the diaphragm to work efficiently and may help you avoid over-breathing.

  • Muscular tensing and stretching. Try twisting your neck around each way as far as it is comfortable and then relax. Try fully tensing your shoulder and back muscles for several seconds and then relax completely.

Try practising these simple techniques when you are relaxed; then use them routinely when you come across any stressful situation.

Practise positive relaxation

Setting specific times aside to relax positively can help with stress management. Don't just let relaxation happen, or not happen, at the mercy of work, family, etc. Plan it and look forward to it. Different people prefer different things. A long bath, a quiet stroll, sitting and just listening to a piece of music, etc. These times are not wasteful and you should not feel guilty about not 'getting on with things'. They can be times of reflection and putting life back in perspective.

To further manage stress some people find it useful to set time aside for a relaxation programme such as meditation, yoga, Pilates or muscular exercises. You can also buy relaxation tapes to help you learn to relax.

Take a time out

Try to allow several times a day to 'stop' and take some time out. For example, getting up 15-20 minutes earlier than you need to is a good way to reduce stress and anxiety. You can use this time to think about and plan the coming day and to prepare for the day's events unrushed. Take a regular and proper lunch break, preferably away from work. Don't work over lunch. If work is busy, if possible try to take 5-10 minutes away every few hours to relax.

Once or twice a week, try to plan some time just to be alone and unobtainable. For example, a gentle stroll or a sit in the park often helps to break out of life's stressful hustle and bustle.

Exercise and maintain a healthy diet

Many people feel that regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy diet reduces their level of stress. (It also keeps you fit and helps to prevent heart disease.) Any exercise is good but try to plan at least 30 minutes of exercise on at least five days a week. A brisk walk outdoors on most days is a good start if you are not used to exercise. In addition, if you have difficulty in sleeping this may improve if you exercise regularly.

Don't use smoking or alcohol as a crutch

Don't be fooled that smoking and drinking can help with stress. In the long run, they don't. Drinking alcohol to 'calm nerves' may lead to problem drinking.

Take up a hobby

Many people find that a hobby which has no deadlines and no pressures and which can be picked up or left easily, takes the mind off stresses. Such hobbies include, for example: different types of sports, knitting, listening to or making music, arts and crafts - eg, model-making, puzzles and reading for pleasure.

Seek treatment for stress

Some people find they have times in their lives when stress or anxiety becomes severe or difficult to cope with. See a doctor if stress or anxiety becomes worse. Further treatments such as anxiety management counselling - for example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - or medication may be appropriate.

For more information on how to manage stress during exam time, see the seperate feature called Exam time: stress-relieving gadgets.

What is stress?

Stress is difficult to define or measure. Some people thrive on a busy lifestyle and are able to cope well with daily stresses. For some a little pressure may even improve how they perform. Other people become tense or stressed by the slightest change from their set daily routine. Most people fall somewhere in between but may have periods when levels of stress increase.

Stress can be acute - a single major event such as a bereavement, feeling unwell or an argument. But it can also be due to longer-term causes, such as financial worries, times of political instability, heavy workload or conflict with people you encounter regularly. This is known as chronic stress. Alternatively, many minor sources of stress or tension, which you could manage perfectly well if there was no other stress in your life, can build up to make you feel overwhelmed. For example, in busy periods such as Christmas, it can become more difficult to manage stress.

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How do you know if you're stressed?

Signs of stress building up include:

  • Not being able to sleep properly with worries going through your mind.

  • Minor problems causing you to feel impatient or irritable.

  • Not being able to concentrate due to many things going through your mind.

  • Being unable to make decisions.

  • Drinking or smoking more.

  • Not enjoying food so much.

  • Being unable to relax and always feeling that something needs to be done.

  • Feeling tense. Sometimes 'fight or flight' stress hormones are released causing physical symptoms. These include:

    • Feeling sick (nauseated).

    • A 'knot' in the stomach.

    • Feeling sweaty with a dry mouth.

    • A 'thumping' heart (palpitations).

  • Headaches and muscle tension in the neck and shoulders.

Sometimes stress builds up quickly - for example, the unexpected traffic jam. Sometimes it is ongoing - for example, with a difficult job. Sometimes symptoms of stress occur in response to a very upsetting and unexpected event in one's life. When this happens, the stress is referred to as 'acute". See the separate leaflet called Acute Stress Reaction.

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Is stress harmful?

Ongoing stress is thought to be bad for health but this is difficult to prove. For example, stress is possibly a risk factor for developing heart problems in later life. The effects of stress may also contribute to other physical illnesses in ways that are not well understood. For example, it is thought that irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, migraine, tension headaches, high blood pressure and other health problems are made worse by an increased level of stress.

Your work performance and relationships may also be affected by stress.

Further reading and references

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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