Understanding Stress & Anxiety

Understanding Stress

There are many signs that you are suffering from stress; feeling unusually irritated, having difficulty sleeping, feeling isolated and lonely, drinking or smoking more than usual or struggling with commitments. These are just come common symptoms of stress.

The Mental Health Foundation published results from a survey run by YouGov, in which 74% of respondents reported having felt so stressed in the past year that they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2018/19 found that stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work related ill health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health. If the picture at work isn’t very encouraging, home life isn’t much better.

More and more of us in the UK are living alone. The number of people living on their own went up by 16% to 7.7 million between 1997 and 2017, while the UK population increased by only 13%.

The gradual erosion of community and family structures underpinning that statistic has led to a loss of social support that has left millions feeling increasingly lonely, vulnerable and stressed.

When stress mounts, it can turn into anxiety, which can have a debilitating impact on both long-term physical and emotional wellbeing. At the extreme end of the spectrum lie so-called anxiety disorders, which almost always require professional help.

Although we can’t always do something about the things that are causing our stress, we can always do something about how we respond and how stress and anxiety is managed.

What Exactly Is Stress?

Due to the way in which stress means so many different things to so many people, and the way that it manifests differently from individual to individual, it can be rather difficult to pin down what exactly stress is. One of the founding fathers of modern stress research, Hans Selye, tried to sum it up in 1956: “Stress is not necessarily something bad – it all depends on how you take it. The stress of exhilarating, creative successful work is beneficial, while that of failure, humiliation or infection is detrimental.” But it gets more complicated if we take into account that what will seem “exhilarating” for one person could easily feel overpowering for the next. Recent definitions have focused much more on the fact that stress is not determined just by events in the outside world, but by how each individual perceives them. The International Stress Management Association (ISMA) describes stress as:
  • The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed upon them.
  • Where those pressures are subjectively felt to have importance.
  • Where those pressures exceed the person’s current perceived resources and coping ability
Put simply, we’re in trouble when the stresses that we face are putting us under more pressure than we can we easily deal with. And the longer it goes on, the worse it can get.

Understanding Anxiety

Just like stress, anxiety can be hard to define. For the sake of simplicity, we can identify three different types.

Fear – a feeling that we experience in the face of threatening or difficult situations. Just like stress, it helps us recognise dangerous situations and motivates us to address problems, but can become debilitating in the long term. Panic – an unexpected surge of negative feeling and acute anxiety, characterized by an inability to think and a desire to escape the situation that you are in immediately.

Phobia – a constant, extreme or irrational fear of an animal, object, place or situation that would not normally worry the majority of people.

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can help us deal with difficult situations such as confrontations and tests. It actually helps us cope. But if it becomes excessive and chronic, it can develop into a disabling disorder. Major types of anxiety disorders include:

  • General Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Warning Signs

Learning to spot the warning signs is the first step to dealing effectively with stress. People who are unaware of what is happening to them are much more likely to resort unthinkingly to negative coping strategies, such as heavy drinking, overeating, overspending and overwork. While these behaviours may provide some initial relief, they actually run us down even further, pushing us into a descending spiral of ever more ineffective attempts to cope with ever intensifying levels of stress. Once you’ve recognised the symptoms, it is also crucial to remember that they are perfectly normal responses to life’s pressures. This will stop you from falling into the trap of thinking something is “wrong” with you for feeling this way and put you quickly into a position to do something constructive about it. Some symptoms of stress, like panic attacks and extreme tension, are easy to spot. There are, however, a whole range of cumulative symptoms that can creep up on or us without our really realising what’s going on. They can be:  

General early-warning signs

  • Irritability, impatience, being edgy and uptight, snapping at others, tending to blame them for the fact that you are in a bad mood oversensitivity, easily taking offence where none is intended, being liable to see things in a negative light
  • Feeling tired but being unable to sleep, or sleeping badly and waking up unrefreshed
  • A change in your normal eating habits, eating either more or less, and often replacing meals and healthy snacks with fast food and chocolate
  • Relying more and more on alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs
  • Feeling sick, getting tummy upsets, diarrhoea or constipation
  • Nervous twitches and habits like nail-biting, scratching or knee-jiggling.

Psychological symptoms

  • Lack of concentration or attention, forgetfulness
  • Inability to think clearly, difficulty in making simple decisions loss of perspective, obsessing over details
  • A nagging feeling of being under pressure of time mental exhaustion, burn-out

Physical symptoms

  • Muscular tension and fatigue
  • Head, shoulder, neck and backaches
  • Tired eyes, muscle-twitching at the corners of the eyes dry mouth, stiff jaw
  • Sweaty palms, cold fingers
  • Indigestion, heartburn
  • Frequent urination, bladder infections
  • Breathlessness, erratic breathing, hyperventilation
  • Heart palpitations
  • Frequent colds and headaches
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Impotence, loss of libido

Emotional Symptoms

  • Increased anxiety, panic attacks
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Depression and negativity
  • Feelings of hostility and resentment
  • Moodiness, tearfulness
  • Lack of a sense of humour
  • Nightmares

Behavioural Symptoms

  • Angry outbursts and aggression
  • Non-stop talking, interrupting others
  • Nervous habits
  • Workaholism or absenteeism
  • Social withdrawal
  • Neglecting appearance / hygiene
  • Obsessive compulsive behaviour

Tips to help you reduce stress

The economic downturn is putting people under pressure like never before driving people to work longer hours and creating financial worries. While a certain amount of stress is natural, excess levels can have serious consequences on your health and wellbeing. If you need help coping with the stresses of modern life, then follow these simple tips to help reduce your stress levels…

Cut it out.

Nicotine, caffeine and sugar are stimulants and will exacerbate stress, rather than calm you down. Alcohol, meanwhile, is a depressant which can make things seem worse. All these substances can also disrupt your sleep and are best avoided. Instead, stay well hydrated by drinking water or soothing camomile tea.

Get physical.

Pressure or anger releases adrenaline in the body; exercise helps to reduce this and triggers the release of ‘feel good’ substances in the brain. So the next time you’re tense, go for a brisk walk and try exercising regularly after work.

Book a massage.

An effective way of tackling stress is having a massage. This helps to stimulate the blood flow, release tension, energise and improve posture. Learn to relax. Simply breathing more slowly and deeply is an easy way to deal with stress. You could also try guided imagery which can help you achieve a relaxed state when you imagine all the details of a calm, peaceful place, such as a beach, garden, a mountain setting or a meadow. You use all of your senses in guided imagery. Imagining yourself in a safe, comfortable setting can help you relax and relieve stress.

Go to sleep.

Sleep is essential for the body to function properly. Try going to bed early enough to enable you to have 8 hours sleep a night, every night for a week, and see if there is a difference in how you perform during the day.

Accept your limits.

A well-known prayer asks for the serenity “to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. This philosophy works well in dealing with pressure!

Listen to your body.

When you are tired, hungry or thirsty, do something about it. Also, recognise stress and anger in your day and counter it immediately with a brisk walk, or meditation, or whatever works for you.

Just say “No”.

Simple, but effective. Where a “no” is the appropriate response, do so without guilt.

Tackling stress at work

Pressure is a natural and healthy thing for us to feel. It motivates us to work to our optimum. However when the level of pressure exceeds our perceived ability to cope with things, then we experience stress. The Labour Research department recognises that stress, in itself, is not an illness, but if it is excessive and prolonged may lead to serious mental and / or physical ill health.  
  • “Stress related ill-health is the second most common cause of sickness and absence from work” (HSE, 2000)
  • 20% of workers in a large-scale random population survey reported ‘very high’ or ‘extremely high’ levels of stress at work. (HSE, 2005)
  • Half a million individuals in Britain say they were experiencing work-related stress at a level that was making them ill. (HSE, 2005)
Pressure is a natural and healthy thing for us to feel. It motivates us to work to our optimum. However when the level of pressure exceeds our perceived ability to cope with things, then we experience stress. The Labour Research department recognises that stress, in itself, is not an illness, but if it is excessive and prolonged may lead to serious mental and / or physical ill health.  

Symptoms of stress at work

  • Constant tiredness
  • Back pains, tension, headaches, palpitations
  • Raised blood pressure. Increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Sleep & gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Increased irritability, anxiety & negative emotions
  • Tearfulness or helplessness
  • Loss of concentration
  • Loss of confidence
  • Lack of interest in others or in life
  • Sexual Problems
  • Increased intake of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs.

Stress busters at work

Physiological Strategies:

  • Nutrition: eat properly and be aware of how your diet and eating habits can affect you. Weight control.
  • Take regular exercise. See our advice on how exercise can improve your mood LINK
  • Get sufficient sleep. Have a warm drink before bed. Avoid caffeine and smoking at night.
  • Don’t increase your drug or alcohol intake
  • Relaxation methods: e.g. deep breathing, visualisation, breathing exercises, meditation, warm baths with candles, music etc.

Behavioural Strategies:

  • Assertiveness: don’t be too hard on yourself. Say no sometimes and delegate work.
  • Time management: don’t rush. Take a few minutes to pause and think. Take breaks & prioritise work tasks.
  • Leave work at work. Be aware of your working hours. Overworking may increase your stress level.
  • Review what is really causing stress for you? You could be surprised! Think about what action you could perhaps take to change things. How much of your stress is caused by you? Are your expectations of yourself and others realistic for example?
  • Go to the source of the stress if you can, and try to change or eliminate it. If not, look at how you respond to stressful situations and see if you can change your response.
  • Cultural/spiritual traditions may offer helpful and comforting guidelines.

Psychological Strategies:

  • Be aware of your own warning signs – maybe this could be a sudden feeling of anxiety, extreme tiredness, feeling very tearful, catching every cough and cold, feeling run down. Take preventive action!
  • Express your thoughts and feelings – don’t bottle them up. Talk to someone else; write down your thoughts; keep a diary or draw your experiences.
  • Challenge your thinking: e.g: are you thinking in all or nothing terms, jumping to conclusions, mind reading, looking only at the negative side of things, overestimating the chances of disaster, expecting yourself to be perfect.
  • Are your beliefs in a particular situation: logical, realistic and helpful to you?

When to seek further help

  • If the symptoms of stress regularly affect you and you feel unable to cope
  • If you have thoughts about harming yourself or ending your life.
  • You think you may be suffering from depression.
  • You are using drugs, alcohol, gambling, risky sex or other self-destructive behaviour to deal with your stress.
Where can I get help?
  • Contact your EAP for support, and to discuss whether therapy might be helpful for your situation.
  • Talk to family / friends / colleagues
  • Make an appointment to talk to your GP
  • Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90, www.samaritans.org.uk

Final Thoughts

Stress is a normal and often unavoidable part of life, but when it becomes overwhelming, it can have a serious impact on our physical and mental health. It’s important to understand the difference between normal stress and chronic stress, as well as the warning signs that indicate you may need to take action to manage your stress levels. Anxiety is a common symptom of stress, but it can be managed with the right tools and techniques. By taking steps to reduce your stress levels and address the underlying causes of your anxiety, you can improve your overall wellbeing and quality of life. Remember, everyone experiences stress differently, so it’s important to find the strategies and techniques that work best for you. Whether you’re practicing mindfulness, taking regular breaks, or seeking support from a mental health professional, there are plenty of ways to tackle stress at work and in your personal life. With the right mindset and tools, you can build resilience and take control of your stress levels, allowing you to thrive and enjoy a happier, healthier life.

Contact Us

For more information on how Life & Progress can help, contact us at 0808 164 3941 or email us at service@lifeandprogress.co.uk

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