Introduction

Stress
Stress

Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure.

Pressure turns into stress when you feel unable to cope. People have different ways of reacting to stress, so a situation that feels stressful to one person may be motivating to someone else.

Many of life’s demands can cause stress, particularly work, relationships and money problems. And, when you feel stressed, it can get in the way of sorting out these demands, or can even affect everything you do.

Stress can affect how you feel, think, behave and how your body works. In fact, common signs of stress include sleeping problems, sweating, loss of appetite and difficulty concentrating.

You may feel anxious, irritable or low in self esteem, and you may have racing thoughts, worry constantly or go over things in your head. You may notice that you lose your temper more easily, drink more or act unreasonably.

You may also experience headaches, muscle tension or pain, or dizziness.

Stress causes a surge of hormones in your body. These stress hormones are released to enable you to deal with pressures or threats – the so-called "fight or flight" response.

Once the pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels will usually return to normal. However, if you're constantly under stress, these hormones will remain in your body, leading to the symptoms of stress.

^^ Back to top

Management

Managing stress in daily life

Stress is not an illness itself, but it can cause serious illness if it isn't addressed. It's important to recognise the symptoms of stress early. Recognising the signs and symptoms of stress will help you figure out ways of coping and save you from adopting unhealthy coping methods, such as drinking or smoking.

Spotting the early signs of stress will also help prevent it getting worse and potentially causing serious complications, such as high blood pressure.

There is little you can do to prevent stress, but there are many things you can do to manage stress more effectively, such as learning how to relax, taking regular exercise and adopting good time-management techniques. Studies have found that mindfulness courses, where participants are taught simple meditations across a series of weeks, can also help to reduce stress and improve mood. Further information on all of these can be found below.

Recognising your stress triggers

If you're not sure what's causing your stress, keep a diary and make a note of stressful episodes for two-to-four weeks. Then review it to spot the triggers.

Things you might want to write down include:

  • the date, time and place of a stressful episode
  • what you were doing
  • who you were with
  • how you felt emotionally
  • what you were thinking
  • what you started doing
  • how you felt physically
  • a stress rating (0-10 where 10 is the most stressed you could ever feel)

You can use the diary to:

  • work out what triggers your stress
  • work out how you operate under pressure
  • develop better coping mechanisms

Doctors sometimes recommend keeping a stress diary to help them diagnose stress.

When to see your GP about your stress levels

If you've tried self-help techniques and they aren't working, you should go to see your GP. They may suggest other coping techniques for you to try or recommend some form of counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy.

If your stress is causing serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, you may need to take medication or further tests.

Mental health issues, including stress, anxiety and depression, are the reason for one-in-five visits to a GP

^^ Back to top

Actions

This section provides information on various types of stress and methods that can be used to deal with them. It includes information on:

How to relax

Relaxation can help to relieve the symptoms of stress. It can help you calm down and take a step back from a stressful situation.

Although the cause of the anxiety won’t disappear, you will probably feel more able to deal with it once you've released the tension in your body and cleared your thoughts.

All relaxation techniques combine breathing more deeply with relaxing the muscles.

Don't worry if you find it difficult to relax at first. It's a skill that needs to be learned and it will come with practice.

Yoga and tai chi are both good forms of exercise that may help to improve breathing and relaxation.

Relaxed breathing

Practise deep breathing at a regular time and in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Loosen or remove any tight clothes you have on, such as shoes or jackets. Make yourself feel completely comfortable.

Sit in a comfy chair which supports your head or lie on the floor or a bed. Place your arms on the chair arms, or flat on the floor or bed, a little bit away from the side of your body with the palms up. If you’re lying down, stretch out your legs, keeping them hip-width apart or slightly wider. If you’re sitting in a chair, don’t cross your legs.

Good relaxation always starts with focusing on your breathing. The way to do it is to breathe in and out slowly and in a regular rhythm as this will help you to calm down.

  • Fill up the whole of your lungs with air, without forcing. Imagine you're filling up a bottle, so that your lungs fill from the bottom.
  • Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Breathe in slowly and regularly counting from one to five (don’t worry if you can’t reach five at first).
  • Then let the breath escape slowly, counting from one to five.
  • Keep doing this until you feel calm. Breathe without pausing or holding your breath.

Practise this relaxed breathing for three to five minutes, two to three times a day (or whenever you feel stressed).

Deep muscle relaxation

This technique takes around 20 minutes. It stretches different muscles in turn and then relaxes them, to release tension from the body and relax your mind.

Find a warm, quiet place with no distractions. Get completely comfortable, either sitting or lying down. Close your eyes and begin by focusing on your breathing; breathing slowly and deeply, as described above.

If you have pain in certain muscles, or if there are muscles that you find it difficult to focus on, spend more time on relaxing other parts.

You may want to play some soothing music to help relaxation. As with all relaxation techniques, deep muscle relaxation will require a bit of practice before you start feeling its benefits.

For each exercise, hold the stretch for a few seconds, then relax. Repeat it a couple of times. It’s useful to keep to the same order as you work through the muscle groups:

  • Face: push the eyebrows together, as though frowning, then release.
  • Neck: gently tilt the head forwards, pushing chin down towards chest, then slowly lift again.
  • Shoulders: pull them up towards the ears (shrug), then relax them down towards the feet.
  • Chest: breathe slowly and deeply into the diaphragm (below your bottom rib) so that you're using the whole of the lungs. Then breathe slowly out, allowing the belly to deflate as all the air is exhaled.
  • Arms: stretch the arms away from the body, reach, then relax.
  • Legs: push the toes away from the body, then pull them towards body, then relax.
  • Wrists and hands: stretch the wrist by pulling the hand up towards you, and stretch out the fingers and thumbs, then relax.

Spend some time lying quietly after your relaxation with your eyes closed. When you feel ready, stretch and get up slowly.

Exercise to relieve stress

Step right up! It's the miracle cure we've all been waiting for. It can reduce your risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer, by up to 50%. It can lower your risk of early death by up to 30%. It’s free, easy to take, has an immediate effect and you don’t need a GP to get some.

Its name? Exercise.

Exercise is the miracle cure we’ve always had, but many of us have forgotten to take our recommended dose for too long. Our health could now be suffering as a consequence.

Exercise is no 'snake oil'. Whatever your age, there's strong scientific evidence that being physically active can help you lead a healthier and even happier life.

People who do regular activity have a lower risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers.

Research shows that physical activity can also boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

"If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented," says Dr Nick Cavill, a health promotion consultant.

The health benefits of exercise

Given the overwhelming evidence, it seems obvious that we should all be physically active. It's essential if you want to live a healthy and fulfilling life into old age.

Research has found that people who do regular physical activity have:

What counts as exercise?

Moderate-intensity aerobic activity means you're working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat. One way to tell if you're working at a moderate intensity is if you can still talk but you can't sing the words to a song.

Examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activities are:

  • walking fast
  • water aerobics
  • riding a bike on level ground or with few hills
  • playing doubles tennis
  • pushing a lawn mower

Daily chores such as shopping, cooking or housework don't count towards your 150 minutes. This is because the effort needed to do them isn’t hard enough to get your heart rate up.

Lack of exercise is a modern problem

People are less active nowadays, partly because technology has made our lives easier. We drive cars or take public transport. Machines wash our clothes. We entertain ourselves in front of a TV or computer screen. Fewer people are doing manual work, and most of us have jobs that involve little physical effort. Work, house chores, shopping and other necessary activities are far less demanding than for previous generations.

Recommended physical activity levels

  • Children under five: 180 minutes every day
  • Young people (5-18): 60 minutes every day
  • Adults (19-64): 150 minutes every week
  • Older adults (65 and over): 150 minutes every week

Sedentary lifestyles: a "silent killer"?

Inactivity has been described as a “silent killer”. Evidence is emerging that sedentary behaviour, such as sitting or lying down for long periods, is bad for your health. Spending hours sitting down watching TV or playing computer games is thought to increase your risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, as well as weight gain and obesity.

Not only should you try to raise your activity levels, but you should also reduce the amount of time you and your family spend sitting down. Common examples of sedentary behaviour include watching TV, using a computer, using the car for short journeys and sitting down to read, talk or listen to music.

“Previous generations were active more naturally through work and manual labour but today we have to find ways of integrating activity into our daily lives,” says Dr Cavill.

Whether it's limiting the time babies spend strapped in their buggies to encouraging adults to stand up and move frequently, people of all ages need to reduce their sedentary behaviour.

“This means that each of us needs to think about increasing the types of activities that suit our lifestyle and can easily be included in our day,” says Dr Cavill. Crucially, you can hit your weekly activity target but still be at risk of ill health if you spend the rest of the time sitting or lying down.

Beat Stress at work

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2011/12, 428,000 people in the UK reported work-related stress at a level they believed was making them ill. That's 40% of all work-related illness.

Psychological problems, including stress, anxiety and depression, are behind one in five visits to a GP.

Some pressure at work can be motivating, but when it becomes excessive it can eventually lead to work-related stress.

Stress is “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures and demands placed on them”, according to the HSE.

Stress symptoms include a pounding heart or palpitations, a dry mouth, headaches, odd aches and pains and loss of appetite for food and sex.

What causes work stress?

The main reasons given for work stress include work pressure, lack of support from managers and work-related violence and bullying.

The way you deal with stress can lead to unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking and drinking too much, which might increase your risk of heart disease.

How to manage work stress

Good stress management in the workplace is critical to your overall health.

Life coach Suzy Greaves says one of the key skills to managing workplace stress is knowing how to say no.

"I’m constantly challenging clients who say they have no choice but to overwork," she says. "I coach people to become empowered and believe they have a choice."

She explains that saying yes can win you brownie points in the short term, but if you take on too much and fail to deliver, it can be a disastrous long-term strategy.

"Have confidence in your ‘no’ when you think it's the right decision, even though it may not be the most popular one," she says. "In the long term, your ability to say no will be one of your most valuable attributes."

Learn to speak out

Greaves says you can prevent exhaustion by knowing how much work you can take on. By taking on too much, you could end up doing nothing well.

Calculate how long you'll need to deal with your current workload so that you can see if you have any extra capacity.

“If you’re extremely busy and your boss asks you to do more, you can say no. Outline your reasons in a specific, measurable way, but always offer a solution.”

Spot the signs of work stress

Learn to recognise the physical effects of stress and do something about it before it makes you really ill. Beware of work stress spilling over into other areas of your life.

Whatever the source of your stress, speak to your manager or someone in your organisation that you feel comfortable talking to. Or get outside help.

Employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. This comes under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. They're also required to conduct risk assessments for work-related stress.

If the problem is not work-related, they may be able to support you in some way or help to take some pressure off you at work while you resolve the stress in your personal life.

Who else can help with work stress?

The HSE supports anyone who is responsible for tackling work-related stress in an organisation.

That might be the person who has responsibility for human resources, a health and safety officer, trade union representatives or line managers.

The HSE believes good management practices can help reduce work-related stress. It offers a management standards approach to help employers take sensible and practical steps to minimise stress in the workplace.

Your GP can also help. Doctors aren't experts in employment law, but they can help you analyse the situation and refer you to more specialised help if necessary.

The British Heart Foundation has more tips for staying healthy and well at work.

Time management tips

Good time management is essential for coping with the pressures of modern life without experiencing too much stress.

If you never have enough time to finish your tasks, better time management will help you regain control of your day.

Good time management doesn't mean you do more work. It means you focus on the tasks that matter and will make a difference. Whether it’s in your job or your lifestyle as a whole, learning how to manage your time effectively will help you feel more relaxed, focused and in control.

“The aim of good time management is to achieve the lifestyle balance you want,” says Emma Donaldson-Feilder, a chartered occupational psychologist.

Here are her top tips for better time management:

Work out your goals

This first step towards improving your time management is to ask yourself some questions. “Work out who you want to be, your priorities in life, and what you want to achieve in your career or personal life,” says Donaldson-Feilder. “That is then the guiding principle for how you spend your time and how you manage it.”

Once you have worked out the big picture, even if it's quite general, you can then work out some short-term and medium-term goals. “Knowing your goals will help you plan better and focus on the things that will help you achieve those goals,” says Donaldson-Feilder.

Make a list

A common time-management mistake is trying to remember too many details, leading to information overload. A better way to stay organised and take control of your projects and tasks is to use a to-do list to write things down.

“Try it and see what works best for you,” says Donaldson-Feilder. She prefers to keep a single to-do list, to avoid losing track of multiple lists. “Keeping a list will help you work out your priorities and timings, so it can help you put off the non-urgent tasks.”

Work smarter, not harder

Good time management at work means doing high-quality work, not high quantity. Donaldson-Feilder advises concentrating not on how busy you are but on results. “Spending more time on something doesn’t necessarily achieve more,” she says. “Staying an extra hour at work at the end of the day may not be the most effective way to manage your time.”

You may feel resentful about being in the office after hours. You’re also likely to be less productive and frustrated about how little you’re achieving, which will compound your stress.

Have a lunch break

Many people work through their lunch break to gain an extra hour at work, but Donaldson-Feilder says that can be counter-productive. “As a general rule, taking at least 30 minutes away from your desk will help you to be more effective in the afternoon,” she says.

A break is an opportunity to relax and think of something other than work. “Go for a walk outdoors or, better still, do some exercise,” says Donaldson-Feilder. “You’ll come back to your desk re-energised, with a new set of eyes and renewed focus.”

Planning your day with a midday break will also help you to break up your work into more manageable chunks.

Prioritise important tasks

Tasks can be grouped in four categories:

  • urgent and important
  • not urgent but important
  • urgent but not important
  • neither urgent nor important

“When the phone rings, it seems urgent to pick it up but it’s not necessarily important,” says Donaldson-Feilder. “It may be more important to continue with what you were doing rather than be distracted by a phone call. When it is appropriate, it may be more effective to let your voicemail pick up the message.”

Donaldson-Feilder says people with good time management create time to concentrate on non-urgent, important activities. By so doing, they minimise the chances of activities ever becoming urgent and important.

“The aim is to learn how to become better at reducing the number of urgent and important tasks. Having to deal with too many urgent tasks can be stressful,” says Donaldson-Feilder.

Practise the 4 Ds

We can spend up to half our working day going through our email inbox, making us tired, frustrated and unproductive. A study has found that one-in-three office workers suffers from email stress.

Making a decision the first time you open an email is crucial for effective time management. To manage this burden effectively, Donaldson-Feilder advises practising the 4 Ds of decision-making:

  • Delete: half of the emails you get can probably be deleted immediately.
  • Do: if the email is urgent or can be completed quickly.
  • Delegate: if the email can be better dealt with by someone else.
  • Defer: set aside time at a later date to spend on emails that require longer action.

Coping with money worries

It's normal to feel worried, anxious or down when times are hard. Job insecurity, redundancy, debt and financial problems can all cause emotional distress. But there are lots of things you can do to help yourself if you're in a difficult situation.

David Richards, professor of mental health services research at the University of Exeter, explains how financial problems can affect your mental wellbeing. He also offers lifestyle tips to help you out of a slump and advice on when to seek medical help.

How financial problems affect mental health

When you've been made redundant or you're struggling with debt, feeling low or anxious is a normal response.

Losing your job can affect your self-esteem and financial circumstances, which in turn can trigger emotional distress. Fear of redundancy can also lead to worry, which is a very common human emotion.

You may be feeling, behaving or thinking in ways that are unfamiliar. But this doesn't necessarily mean you're suffering from depression or an anxiety disorder.

How can you feel more positive?

Professor Richards' top tips for coping with feeling low and anxious are: "Be more active, face your fears, and don't drink too much alcohol."

  • Being more active means not withdrawing from life. Keep seeing your friends. Keep your CV up-to-date. Don't ignore the bills – try to keep paying them. If you have more time because you're not at work, take up some form of exercise, as it can improve your mood if you're feeling low.
  • Facing your fears means not avoiding things you find difficult. For example, if it looks like you're going into debt, get advice on how to prioritise your debts. When people feel anxious, they sometimes avoid talking to others. Some people can lose their confidence about driving or travelling. If this starts to happen, facing up to these situations will generally make them easier.
  • For some people, alcohol can become a problem. You may drink more than usual as a way of dealing with or hiding your emotions, or just to fill time. But alcohol won't help you deal with your problems and could add to your stress.

Why routine is important

If you don't have to go to work in the morning, you can get into a poor sleep routine, lying in bed until late or watching TV all day. Get up at your normal time and stick to your routine.

If you lose your routine, it can also affect your eating. You may stop cooking, eat snacks instead of having proper meals, or miss breakfast because you're still in bed.

For tips see healthy eating.

When should you get medical help?

Most people who experience emotional distress will pick themselves up after a few days or weeks and then feel able to tackle challenges such as finding a new job.

But for a small number of people, the feelings of anxiety and low mood don't go away, and these feelings interfere with the way they live their life.

If you're still feeling worried, anxious or low after a few weeks, see your GP. You may find that talking to a professional therapist could help. Your GP can advise you on talking therapy services in your area.

Seek help immediately if...

If you start feeling like you really can't cope, life is becoming very difficult or isn't worth living, get help straight away. These are dangerous signals that mean you need to talk to someone.

As above, either see your GP or contact helplines such as Samaritans (08457 90 90 90) for confidential, non-judgemental emotional support.

If you've had depression or anxiety before, even if it wasn't formally diagnosed, seek help immediately. You're more likely to have an episode of depression if you've had one before.

Further help for money problems

Citizens Advice Bureau

The Citizens Advice Bureau is a good place to get information about benefits, how to deal with debt, what you're entitled to if you're made redundant, and who to speak to if you end up losing your home.

GOV.UK

The GOV.UK website has sections on:

Finding a new job

The Jobseekers section on GOV.UK provides lots of advice for people looking for work, including tips on how to write a CV, planning your job hunt, and applying for jobs online.

Coping with debt

Citizens Advice Bureau has lots of information on sorting out debt on its website in the section on Help with debt. The charity Mind has a section on its website called Money and mental health, which includes advice on how to manage debt.

Other useful organisations include:

Exam stress

Tests and exams can be a challenging part of school life for both children and parents. But there are ways to ease the stress.

Watch out for exam stress

Children who experience stress may be irritable, not sleep well, lose interest in food, worry a lot, and appear depressed or negative. Headaches and stomach pains can also be stress-related.

Having someone to talk to about their work can help. Support from a parent, tutor or study buddy can help children share their worries and keep things in perspective.

If you feel your child isn't coping, talk to their teachers at school.

Make sure your child eats well

A balanced diet is vital for your child's health, and can help them to feel well during exam periods.

Some parents find that too many high-fat, high-sugar and high-caffeine foods and drinks (such as cola, sweets, chocolate, burgers and chips) make their children hyperactive, irritable and moody.

Read more about eating healthily.

Help your child get enough sleep

Good sleep will improve thinking and concentration. Most teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours' sleep a night. Allow half an hour or so for kids to wind down between studying, watching TV or using a computer and going to bed to help them get a good night's sleep.

Cramming all night before an exam is usually a bad idea. Sleep will benefit your child far more than a few hours of panicky last-minute study.

Be flexible during exams

Family Lives advises parents to be flexible around exam time. When your child is revising all day, don't worry about household jobs that are left undone or untidy bedrooms.

Staying calm yourself can help. Remember, exams don't last forever.

Help them to study

Help your child revise by making sure they have somewhere comfortable to study. Help them draw up a revision schedule or ask the school for one.

Talk about exam nerves

Remind your child that feeling anxious is normal. Nervousness is a natural reaction to exams.

The key is to put these nerves to positive use. Being reminded of what they do know and the time they have put into study can help them feel confident.

Encourage exercise during exams

Make sure your kids are active. Exercise can help boost energy levels, clear the mind and relieve stress. Walking, cycling, swimming, football and dancing are all effective.

Don't add to the pressure

Support group ChildLine says that many of the children who contact them feel that the greatest pressure at exam time comes from their family.

"Keep things in perspective," says Rosanne Pearce, a senior supervisor. "Listen to them, give support and avoid criticism."

Before they go in for a test or exam, be reassuring and positive. Make sure they know that failing isn't the end of the world, and that if things don't go well they may be able to take the exam again.

After each exam, encourage your child to talk it through with you. Then move on and focus on the next test, rather than dwelling on things that can't be changed.

Make time for treats

When the exams are over, help your child celebrate by organising an end-of-exams treat.

Don't use rewards as bribes. Instead, encourage your child to work for their own satisfaction, offering small, frequent treats.

For more information, read Mind's advice on tackling exam stress.

Ten stress busters

What's making you stressed?

If you're stressed, whether by your job or by something more personal, the first step to feeling better is to identify the cause.

The most unhelpful thing you can do is turn to something unhealthy to help you cope, such as smoking or drinking.

“In life, there’s always a solution to a problem,” says Professor Cary Cooper, an occupational health expert at the University of Lancaster. “Not taking control of the situation and doing nothing will only make your problems worse.”

He says the keys to good stress management are building emotional strength, being in control of your situation, having a good social network and adopting a positive outlook.

What you can do to address stress

These are Professor Cooper's top 10 stress-busting suggestions:

Be active

If you have a stress-related problem, physical activity can get you in the right state of mind to be able to identify the causes of your stress and find a solution. “To deal with stress effectively, you need to feel robust and you need to feel strong mentally. Exercise does that,” says Cooper.

Exercise won’t make your stress disappear, but it will reduce some of the emotional intensity that you’re feeling, clearing your thoughts and enabling you to deal with your problems more calmly.

Take control

There’s a solution to any problem. “If you remain passive, thinking, ‘I can’t do anything about my problem’, your stress will get worse,” says Professor Cooper. “That feeling of loss of control is one of the main causes of stress and lack of wellbeing.”

The act of taking control is in itself empowering, and it's a crucial part of finding a solution that satisfies you and not someone else. Read tips about how to manage your time below.

Connect with people

A problem shared is a problem halved. A good support network of colleagues, friends and family can ease your work troubles and help you see things in a different way.

“If you don’t connect with people, you won’t have support to turn to when you need help,” says Professor Cooper. The activities we do with friends help us relax and we often have a good laugh with them, which is an excellent stress reliever.

“Talking things through with a friend will also help you find solutions to your problems,” says Professor Cooper.

Have some ‘me time’

The UK workforce works the longest hours in Europe. The extra hours in the workplace mean that people aren’t spending enough time doing things that they really enjoy. “We all need to take some time for socialising, relaxation or exercise,” says Professor Cooper.

He recommends setting aside a couple of nights a week for some quality "me time" away from work. "By earmarking those two days, it means you won’t be tempted to work overtime on those days," he says.

Challenge yourself

Setting yourself goals and challenges, whether at work or outside, such as learning a new language or a new sport, helps to build confidence. That in turn will help you deal with stress.

“By constantly challenging yourself you’re being proactive and taking charge of your life,” says Professor Cooper. “By continuing to learn, you become more emotionally resilient as a person. It arms you with knowledge and makes you want to do things rather than be passive, such as watching TV all the time.”

Avoid unhealthy habits

Don't rely on alcohol, smoking and caffeine as your ways of coping. "Men more than women are likely to do this. We call this avoidance behaviour," says Professor Cooper. "Women are better at seeking support from their social circle."

Over the long term, these crutches won’t solve your problems. They’ll just create new ones. "It’s like putting your head in the sand," says Professor Cooper. "It might provide temporary relief but it won’t make the problems disappear. You need to tackle the cause of your stress."

Help other people

Cooper says evidence shows that people who help others, through activities such as volunteering or community work, become more resilient. “Helping people who are often in situations worse than yours will help you put your problems into perspective,” says Professor Cooper. “The more you give, the more resilient and happy you feel.”

If you don't have time to volunteer, try to do someone a favour every day. It can be something as small as helping someone to cross the road or going on a coffee run for colleagues. Favours cost nothing to do, and you’ll feel better.

Work smarter, not harder

Good time management means quality work rather than quantity. Our long-hours culture is a well-known cause of workplace illness. “You have to get a work-life balance that suits you,” says Professor Cooper.

Working smarter means prioritising your work, concentrating on the tasks that will make a real difference to your work. “Leave the least important tasks to last,” says Cooper. “Accept that your in-tray will always be full. Don’t expect it to be empty at the end of the day.”

Be positive

Look for the positives in life, and things for which you're grateful. Write down three things at the end of every day which went well or for which you're grateful.

“People don’t always appreciate what they have,” says Professor Cooper. “Try to be glass half full instead of glass half empty,” he says.

This requires a shift in perspective for those who are more naturally pessimistic.

“It can be done,” he says. “By making a conscious effort you can train yourself to be more positive about life. Problems are often a question of perspective. If you change your perspective, you may see your situation from a more positive point of view.”

Accept the things you can't change

Changing a difficult situation isn't always possible. If this proves to be the case, recognise and accept things as they are and concentrate on everything that you do have control over.

“If your company is going under and is making redundancies, there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Professor Cooper. “There’s no point fighting it. In such a situation, you need to focus on the things that you can control, such as looking for a new job.”

Mindfulness

It can be easy to rush through life without stopping to notice much. Paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve your mental wellbeing.

Some people call this awareness 'mindfulness', and you can take steps to develop it in your own life.

Good mental wellbeing means feeling good about life and yourself, and being able to get on with life in the way you want.

You may think about wellbeing in terms of what you have: your income, home or car, or your job. But evidence shows that what we do and the way we think have the biggest impact on wellbeing.

Becoming more aware of the present moment means noticing the sights, smells, sounds and tastes that you experience, as well as the thoughts and feelings that occur from one moment to the next.

Mindfulness, sometimes also called "present-centredness", can help us enjoy the world more and understand ourselves better.

What is mindfulness?

Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.

Professor Williams says that mindfulness can be an antidote to the "tunnel vision" that can develop in our daily lives, especially when we are busy, stressed or tired.

"It's easy to stop noticing the world around us. It's also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living 'in our heads' – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour," he says.

"An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs.

"Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment.

"Awareness of this kind doesn't start by trying to change or fix anything. It's about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives."

How mindfulness can help

Becoming more aware of the present moment can help us enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves better.

"When we become more aware of the present moment, we begin to experience afresh many things in the world around us that we have been taking for granted," says Professor Williams.

"Mindfulness also allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience and to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful.

"This lets us stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply 'mental events' that do not have to control us.

"Most of us have issues that we find hard to let go and mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively. We can ask: 'Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?'

"Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps us deal with them better."

Studies have found that mindfulness programmes, where participants are taught mindfulness practices across a series of weeks, can bring about reductions in stress and improvements in mood.

How you can be mindful

Reminding yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you is the first step to mindfulness.

"Even as we go about our daily lives, we can find new ways of waking up to the world around us," says Professor Williams. "We can notice the sensations of things, the food we eat, the air moving past the body as we walk. All this may sound very small, but it has huge power to interrupt the 'autopilot' mode we often engage day to day, and to give us new perspectives on life."

It can be helpful to pick a time – the morning journey to work or a walk at lunchtime – during which you decide to be aware of the sensations created by the world around you. Trying new things, such as sitting in a different seat in meetings or going somewhere new for lunch, can also help you notice the world in a new way.

"Similarly, notice the busyness of your mind. Just observe your own thoughts," says Williams. "Stand back and watch them floating past, like leaves on a stream. There is no need to try to change the thoughts, or argue with them, or judge them: just observe. This takes practice. It's about putting the mind in a different mode, in which we see each thought as simply another mental event and not an objective reality that has control over us."

You can practise this anywhere, but it can be especially helpful to take a mindful approach if you realise that, for several minutes, you have been "trapped" in reliving past problems or "pre-living" future worries. To develop an awareness of thoughts and feelings, some people find it helpful to silently name them: "Here is the thought that I might fail that exam". Or, "Here is anxiety".

Formal mindfulness practices

As well as practising mindfulness in daily life, it can be helpful to set aside time for a more formal mindfulness practice.

Several practices can help create a new awareness of body sensations, thoughts and feelings. They include:

  • meditation – participants sit silently and pay attention to the sensations of breathing or other regions of the body, bringing the attention back whenever the mind wanders
  • yoga – participants often move through a series of postures that stretch and flex the body, with emphasis on awareness of the breath
  • tai-chi – participants perform a series of slow movements, with emphasis on awareness of breathing
^^ Back to top

Support

Because talking through the issues is one of the key ways to tackle stress, you may find it useful to attend a stress management group or class. These are sometimes run in doctors’ surgeries or community centres. The classes help people identify the cause of their stress and develop effective coping techniques.

Ask your GP for more information if you're interested in attending a stress support group. You can also use the search directory to find emotional support services in your area.

 

^^ Back to top

Selected links

NHS Direct Wales links

Anxiety

Depression

High blood pressure

NHS Direct Wales: Health, well-being & support services search

External Links

Book Prescription Wales

Royal College of Psychiatrists: Stress

Mind: Understanding post-traumatic stress disorder

Health & Safety Executive (HSE): Stress at work

MIND Guide to managing stress

British Sign Language


The DVD which uses BSL helps deaf people learn how to relax and deal with stress, it was created after a team from Abertawe Bro Morgannwg's Education Programme for Patients (EPP) worked with volunteers and service users to find ways of making the information they wanted to pass on more accessible to people with sensory loss.

 

^^ Back to top


The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS Choices.
Last Updated: 19/09/2017 11:15:33