Stress audio transcript

Stress – An NHS self help guide

What is stress?

“I just don’t get a task finished any more before I move on to the next thing. I keep forgetting where I’m up to, I have 20 things on the go at once and I’m not getting anywhere with any of them…”

“I keep meaning to get a little time for myself but I never manage to. Someone always asks me to help out and I never have the heart to say no, but I end up feeling really tired and irritable…”

“It just seems to be one crisis after the next in my life. I’ve got a constant headache and stomach problems, I keep expecting something else to go wrong, I’m at the end of my tether…”

“I find it really hard to relax and unwind and my mind is racing all the time, I just can’t stop worrying”

If you recognise any of these feelings then you may be suffering from too much stress. Stress is what we feel when we are under pressure. It is a completely normal response which we all experience from time to time and is our body’s reaction to feeling under threat; the fight or flight response. It is not dangerous. In fact a certain amount of pressure can be quite helpful and motivating. If we have too much pressure for too long, we run the risk of a more severe stress reaction. This can be quite unpleasant in the short term, but also if stress continues and is not managed, can be really bad for our health.

How can this guide help me?

This guide will tell you more about stress, and help you to see if stress is a problem for you. It makes simple suggestions about how to manage stress and what other help may be available.

What are the signs of stress?

The signs of stress vary from person to person. The physical symptoms are mostly linked to our ancient survival strategy, the fight or flight response. This releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into our body, literally preparing us to fight or flee. The pressures we face nowadays are not usually helped by this response. We can’t fight or flee from debt, deadlines or stressful life events! Many people are quite worried when they feel these symptoms, and think they may be signs of a serious physical or mental health problem, such as having a heart attack or cracking up. They are not dangerous and are in fact very common. Do you recognise any of these signs in yourself? It may help you to write any of them down.

How you feel physically
When stressed, people commonly have:

  • Frequent headaches
  • Muscle tension and aches and pains
  • Churning stomach
  • Sweating
  • Blurred vision, tired eyes
  • Feeling sick, dizzy and faint
  • Bowel and bladder problems
  • Changes in breathing, fast, shallow, sometimes breathless
  • Tingling hands
  • Racing heart
  • Dry mouth
  • Feelings of tiredness and exhaustion

How you feel emotionally
If we are stressed regularly our emotions will usually be affected. People often feel:

  • Angry, irritable and wound up
  • Impatient
  • Anxious and full of dread
  • Unhappy, upset and tearful
  • Lacking in interest
  • Overwhelmed and frustrated
  • Guilty and worthless

Effects on what you do
Stress can affect how we behave in everyday situations such as home, relationships and work:

  • Snappy and irritable
  • Drinking more than usual
  • Smoking more than usual
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from activities you usually enjoy
  • Avoiding people, places and situations
  • Putting things off
  • Becoming unreasonable
  • Making silly mistakes
  • Rushing around and doing too much
  • Lots of things on the go but not finishing anything
  • Unable to settle
  • Not sleeping
  • Biting nails
  • Grinding teeth
  • No time for self-help!
  • Neglecting your own needs

Effects on your thinking
When we feel stressed we tend to see things very negatively. Stressed people often:

  • Worry all the time
  • Have racing thoughts that won’t switch off
  • Expect the worse
  • Think negatively about everything
  • Criticise themselves and others
  •  Have poor concentration and memory
  • Have impossible expectations of self and others

If you have some of these signs it may be you are experiencing stress. These are some of the short-term signs but long-term health risks from stress can be more serious.

For example, heart disease, high blood pressure, severe depression, stroke, migraine, severe anxiety, asthma, low resistance to infection, bowel problems, stomach problems especially ulcers, have all been linked to stress. It is therefore very important to learn ways to manage stress.

What causes stress?

There is no simple answer to this question. What is stressful varies from person to person, and throughout our lifetime. There can be many sources of stress. Sometimes it can be one or two big life events or changes, and other times it can be a build up of smaller things. Very often it may be both. As well as the things that happen to us and around us (external stress), our stress levels are also affected by what happens inside us (internal stress). So all of the signs we have mentioned affect each other and add to our stress. For example:

  • External stress: for example, bereavement, debt, work stress
  • Stressed body: for example, tense shoulders, racing heart, indigestion
  • Stressed thoughts: for example, I can’t cope, I’m going to lose my job
  • Stressed behaviour: for example, rushing around avoidance, short tempered
  • Stressed feelings: for example, frustrated, angry, overwhelmed

Although we can’t always control the external stress in our life, we can break the vicious cycle of getting more stressed by better understanding our stress and changing our response to it. Taking stock of the external stress in our life can be really helpful. This can help us to understand why we are feeling stressed, and to be kinder to ourselves in recognising what we are dealing with.

If you have had one or more of these life events over the last year, then you are more likely to be stressed and should try to avoid further stressful events where possible. Take extra care of yourself to boost your resilience.

  • Death or illness in the family
  • Death or illness of a close friend
  • Death of a pet
  • Serious or chronic health problems
  • Being a carer
  • Divorce or relationship breakdown
  • Getting married
  • Pregnancy/childbirth
  • Moving job
  • Severe work related stress
  • Promotion at work
  • Self or partner losing job
  • Money worries, large debts
  • Moving house
  • Major dispute with family or friends
  • Extreme problems with neighbours/noise
  • Family gatherings for holidays/Christmas
  • And other.

It is not always possible to avoid stress, but learning more about our stress can allow us to understand the causes of stress and reduce the effect it has on us. You may notice from the list that even events seen as enjoyable or positive, such as holidays, getting married, family celebrations, moving house, promotion or having a baby, can be stressful. Keeping a stress diary can be really helpful here. What is going on for you at the moment and making you stressed? Keep a brief note of where, what and who is making you stressed. Try to identify the triggers for your stress. Note what you feel, think or do, and what you notice in your body. This can be an important first step in making some changes.

How can we manage stress in our body?

As the stress response is largely physical, our body is one of the first things to be affected. Controlled breathing, deep muscle relaxation, mindful breathing and relaxing activity can all help in reducing tension and switching off some of the physical signs of stress.

Controlled breathing
To begin with, choose a time of day when you feel most relaxed. You can do this exercise sitting or standing with your eyes open or closed. Concentrate on your breathing for a few minutes, breathing slowly and calmly in through your nose and out through your lips. Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Imagine you are filling a bottle from the bottom up, so the hand on your stomach moves first then your hand on your chest. You are filling and emptying your lungs with each breath. It may help to count in-two-three and out-two-three. Once you have mastered the controlled breathing try saying to yourself ‘calm’ as you breathe in and ‘relax’ as you breathe out. Controlled breathing can be used anytime and anywhere to switch off the body’s stress response.

Deep muscle relaxation
It is helpful to listen to these instructions a few times first and eventually learn them by heart. Start off by sitting or lying somewhere warm and comfortable, where you won’t be disturbed. This relaxation exercise takes you through different muscle groups in the body, teaching you firstly to tense, then relax. Don’t tense your muscles too tightly. It should not be uncomfortable or painful. Each time you relax a group of muscles notice how they feel when they are relaxed. Don’t try too much to relax but just let go of the tension. Allow your muscles to relax as much as you can. Think about the difference in the way they feel when they are tense compared to when they are relaxed.

It is useful to stick to the same order, as you work through the muscle groups:

Breathing – Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing for a few minutes, breathing slowly and calmly in two-three and out two-three. Say the word ‘calm’ to yourself as you breathe in and ‘relax’ as you breathe out.
Hands – Start with your hands. Clench one fist first and notice the tension in your hand and forearm. Hold it and study the tension for a minute…and then relax. You might feel a slight tingling, this is the relaxation beginning to develop.
Arms – Bend your elbows and tense your arms. Feel the tension especially in your upper arms. Remember, do this for a few seconds and then relax.
Neck – Press your head back and roll it gently from side to side. Feel how the tension moves. Then bring your head forward into a comfortable position.
Face – There are several muscles here, but it is enough to think about your forehead and jaw. First lower your eyebrows in a frown. Relax your forehead. You can also raise your eyebrows, and then relax. Now, clench your jaw, notice the difference when you relax.
Shoulders – This is where we hold a lot of tension. Shrug your shoulders up – then relax them. Notice the tension ease away as you drop your shoulders down. Circle your shoulders slowly and let go of any remaining tension.
Chest – Take a deep breath, hold it in for a few seconds, notice the tension, then relax. Let your breathing return to normal.
Stomach – Tense your stomach muscles as tightly as you can and relax.
Buttocks – Squeeze your buttocks together and relax.
Legs – Straighten your legs and bend your feet towards your face then relax.
Feet – Point your toes to the floor, hold it for a few seconds, then wiggle your toes. Imagine you are letting go of the last bit of tension through your feet.
You may find it helpful to get a friend to listen to these instructions with you. There are also many free relaxation resources online or to buy.

To make best use of relaxation you need to:

  • Practice daily.
  • Start to use relaxation in everyday situations.
  • Learn to relax without having to tense your muscles first, just focus on the muscles and let the tension go.
  • Use some relaxation techniques to help in difficult situations, e.g. breathing slowly, dropping your shoulders.
  • Practice in public situations (on the bus, in a queue and so on).
  • Use the deep, slow breathing, with the word calm to instantly relax where ever you are.
  • Slow down.
  • Don’t try too hard, just let it happen.

Mindful breathing
This is a different approach to managing stress. The goal of mindful breathing is calm, non-judging awareness, allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go without getting caught up in them. The aim is to concentrate only on the present moment, not the past and not the future. Much of our stress is linked to thoughts and feelings about the past and the future, so just being in the here and now can be very helpful.

Follow these instructions:

  • Sit comfortably, with your eyes closed or lowered and your back straight.
  • Bring your attention to your breathing.
  • Observe the natural rhythm of your breathing. Every time you breathe in, notice what it feels like. Where do you feel the breath? How does it feel? Each time you breathe out, notice your lungs deflate. Notice the sensations as your lungs fill and empty. Breathe in through your nose and out through your lips.
  • Thoughts will come into your mind, and that’s okay, because that’s just what the mind does. You don’t need to dwell on them though. Just notice the thoughts, then bring your attention back to your breathing.
  • You may notice sounds, physical feelings, and emotions, but again, just bring your attention back to your breathing.
  • Don’t follow those thoughts or feelings, don’t judge yourself for having them, or analyse them in any way. It’s okay for the thoughts to be there. Just notice those thoughts, and let them drift on by, bringing your attention back to your breathing.

Thoughts will enter your awareness, and your attention will follow them. No matter how many times this happens, just keep bringing your attention back to your breathing. The more you can practice this exercise the better you will be at being in the present moment. You can then start to be mindful in everyday situations, bringing your full focus of attention to whatever you are doing. Be it washing the dishes, having a shower or being out for a walk.

There are many websites online with further information about mindfulness and a few are listed in the written version of this guide.

Relaxing activity

Exercise: Taking exercise regularly has great benefits for both our physical and psychological health, but it is also very relaxing and a great way to relieve stress and physical tension. Exercise can reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of serotonin and endorphins, our body’s natural feel-good hormones. From a health point of view, it is recommended that you are active for at least 30 minutes each day, 5 days a week. You don’t have to join a gym to become more active. Going for a brisk walk, a cycle, a swim or a jog are all good sources of exercise and can help to combat stress. The main thing is that you find a form of exercise that you enjoy, as this will make it much easier to motivate yourself.

Hobbies: Anything we do that absorbs, calms and interests us can help reduce the physical effects of stress on our body: photography, painting, knitting, cross stitch, dancing, singing, baking, are just a few examples of things that may help you to physically relax. The more mindful an activity is, the less likely that our body and mind will stay stressed.

Not all hobbies and activities calm and relax us, however. Watching your favourite team being beaten for example, can increase your stress levels. As can playing a very competitive sport. Increasing your awareness by keeping a stress diary can be very helpful to work out which sort of activities are best for reducing stress in your body.

Sleep well: Stress often affects our ability to get a good night’s sleep, whether its thoughts racing round our mind last thing at night or waking early with worries popping into our head. Getting enough sleep, however, is very important for our physical and mental well-being, and if you are sleeping poorly this will make your stress worse. The relaxation and mindfulness strategies discussed earlier can be very helpful for improving sleep. If you find sleep is still a problem, there is a guide in this series which has lots of information on how to get a good night’s sleep.

Eat well: Eating a balanced and healthy diet is so important in dealing with stress, yet when we are stressed, eating healthily is often the last thing on our mind! Research shows that when stressed we are more likely to overeat comfort foods containing fat and sugar, such as chocolate, biscuits and so on. Or for some people, they lose their appetite altogether. Try not to skip meals. Eat regularly, taking healthy snacks as necessary. Small, regular, balanced meals with plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day) will help to maintain energy levels and mood, while decreasing tiredness, irritability and other stress symptoms in our body.

Self care: There are so many ways to calm and soothe ourselves: Relaxing in a warm bath with some scented candles; having an aromatherapy massage; drinking a cup of our favourite tea; practising yoga; watching a favourite film; seeing friends; having a laugh; reading a good book, stroking a pet. The list is endless, you just need to find what works for you!

How can we manage our stressful thoughts?

The good news is that because our body and mind are linked, controlled breathing, deep relaxation, mindful breathing and relaxing activity all help to calm a stressed mind as well as a stressed body. There are some other simple things that may help. For example, changing our stressed thoughts can have a big effect on how we feel and behave. We all have stressed thoughts from time to time, but when we have too much stress, sometimes our thoughts become a big part of the problem. Our thoughts can convince us that we are not coping, that we are useless and that there is no point in trying to beat our stress. Stressed thoughts can also make us avoid things that could be helpful, such as seeing friends, taking exercise, doing fun things.

A really simple way of challenging our stressed thoughts is to imagine we are advising a stressed friend. Most of us are very good at this. Keep a diary for a few weeks writing down any thoughts that are stressing you out in one column. In another column, take a few minutes to be your own ‘wise friend’, and write down what you might say if you were advising someone else. You’ll be amazed how good your own advice can be!

The following questions and answers might further help you to challenge your stressed thoughts:

Question: Are you expecting too much of yourself and aiming to be perfect? Perhaps trying to achieve the impossible?
Answer: Aim for good enough. Don’t compare yourself with others in an unhelpful way.

Question: Are you focusing on your weaknesses and ignoring your good points?
Answer: Write a list of all your strengths and achievements and keep it close to hand. Remind yourself of what you are good at. It is easy to forget this when feeling stressed.

Question: Are you taking responsibility or blame for something that isn’t really in your control?
Answer: Just remind yourself ‘I can only do my best, it’s out of my control’

Question: Are you worrying about something that might never happen?
Answer: Use your mindful breathing, and just let the thought go.

Question: Are you underestimating your ability to cope if the worst did happen?
Answer: Remind yourself of how you have coped in the past and got through other difficult situations.

Question: Are you focusing on the negative all of the time and starting to feel quite low?
Answer: Keep a Gratitude Diary by your bedside, and every night, jot down three things which have gone well that you are grateful for that day. This simple act which shifts our attention to the positive has been found to improve mood and reduce stress.

What goes on in our mind when we are stressed not only involves our thoughts and feelings, but also has a huge impact on our behaviour. So to control our stress it helps to have a good look at our behaviour and see if there’s anything we can change to reduce our stress.

How can we manage our stressed behaviour?

The good news is that many of the things mentioned so far to help reduce the effects of stress on our body and mind, are of course behaviours! So you may have already started to make some positive changes. Unfortunately, not all of the things we do to cope with stress are helpful. In fact, a lot of stressed behaviours make the problem worse.

Watch out for three sorts of behaviour. The 3 ‘A’s:

Alcohol and other unhealthy behaviours. It is very common when we are feeling stressed to reach for the bottle. A glass of wine can be seen as the perfect solution to help us unwind and ‘chill’ after a stressful day. Unfortunately, alcohol does not help when we are stressed. If anything, it can make us feel more stressed the next day and less likely to be able to deal with the things that may be stressing us, especially as it is likely to affect the quality of our sleep. Other unhealthy coping behaviours such as: smoking more, eating too much or too little, buying things we can’t afford, not looking after ourselves, zoning out in front of the TV for hours on end, all make things worse, not better. So if you feel you are drinking to cope with stress do reduce your alcohol intake. And if you possibly can, try to reduce any other unhelpful behaviours that may be making your stress worse.

Avoidance is something we all do when we become stressed. Sometimes ignoring problems or difficult situations feels like the only way we can cope. This does not help in the long run. Behaviours like not opening letters, not answering the phone, not seeing friends, not going out, can only make matters worse. Try to face up to anything you are avoiding. You don’t have to do everything at once but it will really help you feel more in control if you stop avoiding things.

Start off by listing problems you may be avoiding, such as debt, problems around the house, work-based problems, relationship problems. Next, take each in turn and make a plan to deal with the problem. This may be about getting help, such as from citizens advice, or another professional. Or it may be about simple steps you might take yourself to sort out problems that may have built up. You might also be avoiding some nice things that could make you feel better, because you are feeling too stressed, which takes us on to the next ‘A’ – Activity.

Activity: too little or too much?

Too little?
As part of the avoidance that happens when we are stressed, often we have a big reduction in our activity levels. Whereas we might normally exercise, see friends, go to the cinema, eat out, cook healthy meals; very often when stressed we reduce our enjoyable behaviours because we feel we don’t have time, and are too stressed. It will help your stress if you make a plan to increase your activity. In particular think about the things you value most. Are stress and fear getting in the way of you doing the things you value and enjoy? If so, make a plan to change this. Take a moment to list five things you really value, for example: staying fit and healthy, family, friends, relationship, art, nature, helping people, work, travel, religion, hobbies. Next, check whether you are currently doing things in line with your values. If you are, great, keep it up and if possible do more. If not, set yourself some goals to make sure you are increasing your valued activities. This should have the immediate effect of improving your mood and reducing your stress no matter how small your first step is. The good thing is that even small changes can make a big difference. So start right now even if it’s just by making one small change.

Too much?
It may be that rather than (or as well as) having reduced some activity, you feel like you are rushing around doing too much and spinning too many plates. Sometimes the answer here is to stop, take a step back and ask yourself: Are you on the go all the time? Do you feel you are doing more and more but achieving less and less? Do you find yourself saying yes all the time, when it would be much better for you to say no? If so, then your over activity may be making your stress worse. Try to slow down and relax more. Use the relaxation techniques described earlier in the guide. Challenge thoughts that tell you have to be on the go all the time. Allow yourself to say no sometimes. Some helpful resources on assertiveness are listed in the written version of this guide.

What if my stress is work related?

Work related stress is increasingly common, and is now the biggest reason for sickness absence in the UK. If you are struggling with stress at work, it could be for a number of reasons. It may be that the demands of your job are unreasonable, or that you feel you have very little control at work. Sometimes not knowing what your role is, or constant change, can be very stressful. Other times it may be tricky relationships with your colleagues or bullying that may be the issue. The techniques described in this guide should be helpful for work related stress. In addition, brushing up on some simple time management skills may be useful.

Time management

  • Make a single to-do list. Seeing it written down will help you work out your priorities and timings. Don’t have too many things on it and keep it handy.
  • Less is sometimes more. Focus on quality not quantity. Staying an extra hour every night will achieve little if you are stressed, as you will be more tired and less able to focus.
  • Have a break. This is so important. Plan half an hour away from work for lunch if you can. A walk outdoors is ideal. Stay hydrated with regular water, and a tea or coffee break if possible.
  • Prioritise the most important tasks. This may not always be the ones that are the most urgent. Try to deal with the most important tasks before they become urgent. This will help your workload feel more manageable.
  • Practice the 4 D’s for dealing with email stress:
    – Delete unimportant emails straightaway, usually at least 50%
    – Do immediately if quick, important or urgent
    – Delegate as many as possible if someone else can do.
    – Defer but set aside time later to deal with emails that will take longer.

Sometimes despite our best efforts stress is too much for us to deal with on our own. If you feel your stress is mostly work related, then it may be useful to seek support at work. Your manager, HR and your Occupational Health Department if you have one, should all be able to help. Work related stress is not just your issue but it’s an issue for your employer too.

The Health and Safety Executive have identified stress as a potential risk at work and every employer is obliged to keep you safe at work. Sometimes changes can be made at work to help deal with stress. A good manager is one of the most helpful sources of support for work related stress. Many work places have stress management courses and counselling available for employees.

You may be self-employed of course and not have access to any of this support. While being self-employed can be less stressful in some ways, such as having more control and enjoyment of work. Other factors such as social isolation, financial pressures, irregular hours and difficulty switching off are common problems for people who work for themselves. Hopefully the techniques and tips described in this guide will be useful whatever your work circumstances.

How to beat stress

So bringing it all together, here are some final tips on how to beat stress

Health and self-care are very important in managing stress. Look after your health. Try to plan breaks throughout the year with a change in activities and surroundings where possible. Make looking after yourself a top priority.

Organise yourself as best you can. Being organised will help your stress levels. If you don’t cram too much into the day, you will be able to deal with crises if they arise.

Work may be the problem. If so what aspects are stressful? Could better time management help? What are your priorities? Could you delegate? Could you get more support? Do you need some training? Should you speak to your manager?

Try not to take on too much. Be realistic about what you can achieve setting yourself reasonable goals.

Own up to yourself that you are feeling stressed – half the battle is admitting it!

Be in the moment where possible. Focus on the here and now. Don’t dwell on the past or future worries as this will increase your stress.

Eat a balanced diet. Eat slowly and mindfully, allowing at least half an hour for each meal. Don’t eat on the run or whilst doing other activity.

Alcohol does not help stress. Reduce your alcohol intake if you feel you are drinking as a way to cope with stress.

Time for things you value is vital, including time for yourself. Plan some valued activities in your life. When stressed sometimes we lose sight of what is most important. Make time for what matters most and you will manage your stress better.

Solve problems rather than burying your head in the sand. Write down the problems in your life that may be causing stress, and as many possible solutions as you can. Make a plan to deal with each problem.

Talk things over with a friend or family member, or someone else you can trust and share your feelings with. Relationships are key to our resilience.

Relaxation or leisure time each day is important. Use the relaxation techniques described in this guide or try some new ways to relax such as aromatherapy or reflexology.

Exercising regularly is a great stress buster. At least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on five or more occasions per week is excellent for stress control. Walking, running, cycling, dancing, yoga, exercise classes, tennis. It doesn’t matter what the exercise is but it helps if you enjoy it!

Say no and don’t feel guilty.

Seek professional help if you have tried these things and still your stress is a problem.

Stress is not an illness in itself, but if it goes on for a long time, and symptoms are severe it can lead to more serious health problems. Stress affects our body, our mind and our behaviour. Understanding more about the causes of stress and how it affects us can be helpful in learning ways to cope with stress. A number of techniques are described that can help you manage your stress, but if you feel your stress is mainly work related, it may be that in addition you need some support from work if available. If your stress continues, and you are not seeing any change in your stress levels from using this guide then speak to your GP, who may be able to make further suggestions or refer you on for help.

If you feel so stressed that thoughts of harming yourself or taking your own life have been in your mind then visit your doctor as soon as possible and talk about how you are feeling.

A list of useful contacts, books and references are available in the written version of this guide.

Written by Dr Lesley Maunder and Lorna Cameron, Consultant
Clinical Psychologists.

Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust has developed this resource with the support of NHS healthcare staff, service users and local voluntary sector groups.