An old fashioned road sign has two placards, with the words stress and relax, pointing in different directions.

Stress management

We all experience stress at some point in our lives. It is our body and mind’s response to pressure.

Sometimes we can experience brief periods of intense stress. Sometimes it can be simmering in the background over a long time.

While it can feel difficult to deal with, it is important to remember it is still a natural response to certain situations. Understanding it can help you manage your response better. 

What causes stress? 

From minor daily strains to big life events, stress has many causes. Different people will find different things stressful, but there are some common triggers.  

Take a look at the following examples—any of these things can be stressful on their own, and dealing with multiple triggers can be much harder to manage.

  • Work. This is a major cause of stress for many people. Feeling overworked, having a poor work/life balance, losing a job or starting a new job—any of these can put you under a lot of pressure. Often the work itself can be stressful, with deadlines, responsibilities or repetitive activities all being common triggers. Concern about your financial situation is a work-related cause of stress as well.
  • Major life events or changes. These are common to all of us, but they can still be stressful. Even happy events like planning a wedding or the birth of a child can put you under a lot of strain. Illness, whether it affects you or someone you love, can be stressful for everyone involved. Grief is one of the most powerful causes of stress you will experience. Usually your home is where you draw your sense of stability, but any big change there (especially changing your home entirely) can be a trigger for stress.
  • Current events. The way modern news is presented can give you a negative view of the world. If you watch the news on TV or read the newspapers, magazines or websites, it is possible to feel an overwhelming sense of fear and worry, as so many of the reports have negative associations.
  • Modern technology. The spread of information has increased rapidly in recent years, thanks to modern technology. It's possible to be connected all of the time, which allows phones and computers to deliver a steady stream of content that may make you feel unsettled. Plus, with the addition of social media, you are able to read and watch content (often largely unfiltered and unmonitored) which, if you absorb too much of, can cause stress. 

How can stress make you feel?

Stress is a combination of physical and mental reactions. While these responses are heavily linked, it helps to think of them separately.

Stress and your body

In the body, stress causes the release of two main hormones: 

Adrenaline gives you the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. It increases your heart rate and your blood pressure to increase the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, preparing them for action. In reality, when you don’t need to run away from something, an adrenaline rush can create unpleasant physical sensations. This may include making it feel like your heart is pounding, which could cause breathing difficulties. Adrenaline is often released in short, intense bursts, so these feelings can pass quickly.

Cortisol is usually released over longer periods than adrenaline and can cause a wide range of sensations. Its major effect is to increase the amount of sugar available for muscles to use. Cortisol does this by suppressing the rest of the body’s functions that aren’t needed for adrenaline to act. The digestive and immune systems tend to respond most dramatically. The actions of cortisol on the gut can lead to changes in appetite and weight. Its effect on the immune system can make you more vulnerable to infections.

Stress and your mind

In the mind, stress has a variety of effects. 

Emotional intensity is a frequent reaction. This could make you feel angry, irritable or short-tempered. It could also make you feel sad, lonely or unsupported. You may get a sense of emotional detachment and lose the ability to enjoy things that would usually make you happy. 

Additional worry can also happen when you experience stress. This could happen because of the actual issues triggering your stress, or it could come from unrelated worries. You may think this is the brain’s way of planning for the future. It allows the mind to ‘rehearse’ its response to problems before they come up. While this is a natural reaction to stress, it should not be debilitating.

NOTE: If you feel that symptoms of stress are present most of the time (or you’re finding it difficult to go through your daily routine), it may be the sign of an anxiety disorder. Panic attacks or noticeably high levels of anxiety should prompt you to see your GP who can advise you on ways to manage your symptoms.

What can you do to help manage stress?

Managing your stress may seem like a challenge in itself, but there are some simple tips to help you gain control of simple stressful situations.

Make a list

It may sound obvious, but making a list can be very useful. A list can both identify sources of your stress and help you plan how to deal with it.  

Once you have made your list, try to reduce it as much as possible by seeing if there is anything that can be resolved quickly. For example, if one of your stress triggers is an argument you may have had with a family member, see if there’s an opportunity to make amends. Or if you are stressed because you’ve taken on too much, see if there is anything you can remove or delegate. 

As you tick more things off your list, you will find that your stress levels will begin to fade.

Making a list is also a good way of familiarising yourself with common triggers that make you feel stressed. Ideally, this will help you to avoid certain stressful situations before they occur.

Ask for help 

When you have identified some of the causes of your stress, see if there is any way to ask for help. Drawing on your social support network can reduce stress, first by allowing you to talk about your frustrations, but also by allowing someone else to help you manage the burden of your problems. For many people, 'a problem shared is a problem halved'. 

Try to relax

It’s important to organise your time so you won't feel overwhelmed. Make sure you plan time for relaxation and recuperation as well. The duty to rest is vital to your physical and mental wellbeing (as well as being a mitzvah). 

There are many techniques for managing stress, such as: having a bath, getting a massage or using calming breathing techniques. You can also get meditating or try other relaxation activities (like yoga, Tai Chi or self-hypnosis). If you can’t make it to a class, there are many books, CDs and apps that can help you learn relaxation techniques.

Go technology free!  

Consider occasionally ‘switching off’. Turn off your phone and get rid of all of the stressful stimuli around you to create a temporary peaceful space. 

Keep a healthy lifestyle  

Getting physically active can help release some of the excess adrenaline in your system. Likewise, following a healthy diet can counteract some of the effects of cortisol.

Sleep is also vital to maintaining your health during stress. If you are having difficulty sleeping, consider taking care of yourself to improve your sleep routine

Stay positive

You can cultivate a positive attitude by doing things you enjoy. Favourite hobbies and activities can be uplifting, which can be healing for both body and soul. 

You could think about the following:

  • Get involved in your community - volunteering and giving back can be a good antidote to stress.
  • Make time to pray - quiet contemplation is beneficial for many people.
  • Spend time with friends and family - both enjoyable and enriching, this gives you the chance to talk about what you're going through (and it can really help). 

Stress doesn’t need to be your enemy 

Understanding stress can help alleviate its effects on your body and mind. When you think of stress as your body’s natural response to pressure, it can help you to relax.  

If you look after yourself during periods of stress, you can even turn it to your advantage by focusing the adrenaline and nervous energy into being productive.  

However, if it’s getting too much and you’re worrying all the time or experiencing physical symptoms, it’s important to speak to your doctor.  

But for the rest of the time, remember that stress is something we all go through. You’re not alone and we all deal with it differently. There are plenty of steps you can take to manage it, so explore all of your options to find out what works for you.

Further reading

There are many places to find more ideas on how to manage stress in different ways.

Apps

If you’re tech savvy, online apps might be your thing. This brief list gives you a sense of what's out there:

Videos

Online ‘self-help’ videos can be very helpful if they are well sourced. Here are a few places where you can start:

  • Mental Health Foundation created an animation on Stress: are we coping?
  • NHS inform is part of the healthier Scotland initiative, which is supported by the Scottish government. That site hosts a series of breathing and relaxation exercises for stress.
  • TED is a well respected provider of videos that cover many concepts. The organisation's short videos run for less than 20 minutes, and their archive includes more than 3000 talks. Just type the phrase 'stress' in the search box and a list of results will be generated. You can sort the list by relevance, newest, oldest or most viewed. One by Psychologist Kelly McGonigal looks at How to make stress your friend. 
  • thinkaction offers an overview of stress including the video, Bliss talks about stress.

Websites

Finally, here are a few websites with links to more resources.

If stress is just one part of the mental health picture for you, make sure to read our full coverage of Living with mental health issues. You can also register to use our Forum and start a discussion under the topic of mental health.

Listen to this page: