Supporting someone who's feeling stressed
This year, National Stress Awareness Day (2 Nov) and International Stress Awareness Week (7-11 Nov) is focused on the theme of 'Working Together to Build Resilience and Reduce Stress’ – chosen by the International Stress Management Association to highlight how rising levels of stress can affect our mental health and wellbeing, and ways to manage our stress before it leads to anxiety or low mood.
In 2019, the American Psychological Association found more than three-quarters of adults reported symptoms of stress, including headache, tiredness, or sleeping problems.
Meanwhile, in the UK, results from the Mental Health Foundation’s 2018 study showed three quarters of respondents said they had experienced stress in the last year to the point where they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
One way we can support those around us if they are being affected by stress is by helping them to recognise the signs and symptoms. Many people don’t realise they are struggling with stress, while others may have accepted stress as an inevitable part of life that they just need to get on with.
What is stress?
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress is "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them".
Most of us know what it’s like to feel stressed, when we’re faced with a long to-do list or we’re put under pressure, for example. The stress response is simply the body’s way of preparing us physically and mentally to deal with a challenge. The brain releases a flood of hormones that put us in ‘fight or flight’ mode, heightening our senses and alertness, and getting our muscles ready for action.
If this response happens on a frequent basis or lasts too long, however, it can be incredibly draining and overwhelming, and have a negative effect on our quality of life. The more the stress reaction is activated, the easier it is to trigger– and if left unmanaged it can begin to impact on our relationships, mood and health.
What to look out for
Physical reactions might include increased heart rate, tense muscles, sleep-related problems, headaches, and feeling sick or dizzy.
Those experiencing stress may feel overwhelmed, frequently drained or appear to have an increasingly negative outlook on life. Some people may be unable to switch off when they’re feeling stressed – either because they’re worried or wanting to push through the stress. Most find that they are unable to find enjoyment in tasks when they’re stressed.
Common behaviours might include an inability to concentrate or make decisions, changes in eating habits, procrastination or avoidance – whether from certain tasks, withdrawing from people and social activities, and becoming easily irritated or impatient.
These feelings, thoughts, symptoms and behaviours can end up becoming a ‘vicious cycle’, with one leading to another.
How you can support them
While it’s impossible to eliminate stress completely, being better equipped to deal with stressful situations can help people to cope. Below are a few steps you can take to support those feeling increasingly stressed.
Offer a listening ear. This will show them they have support if they need it, and give them a chance to talk things through. They might just want to get things off their mind – or they might welcome help or advice with identifying the source of their stress, and managing and lowering their stress levels.
Help them to problem solve. If there’s a specific cause behind their stress, you could help them get clarity on what to do about it. For example, if they have too much to do, you could help them to make a list of everything, prioritise what’s urgent, and delegate some of it.
Encourage them to take time for themselves. This isn’t selfish or unproductive – not doing so can actually affect our ability to get things done, as well as having an impact on our mood and health. Doing exercise, for example, releases natural endorphins that can combat some of the physical symptoms of stress.
Some people find that thinking about the ‘Stress Bucket’ is a helpful management strategy. In this respect, it's also important to have activities and hobbies that act as ‘holes in the bucket’. If rain keeps falling into a bucket that has no holes in it, at some point the water will overflow. Stress is a bit like this. It can be especially helpful to do something that absorbs a lot of focus and concentration. Getting into the flow calms the mind, and helps to reduce symptoms such as a rapid heart-rate or muscle tension.
Offer a fresh perspective. Sometimes people feel stressed because of rules they’ve imposed on themselves. There are two types of demands. External demands are the things we really have to do. Internal demands are those we place on ourselves – for instance that we must finish our to-do list by the end of the week.
You could help your friend, family member or colleague to challenge the rules that are putting them under pressure. Ask: “Is this true? Do you really have to do this? Can anything wait? If you don’t clean the car every weekend, what will happen?”.
For more tips like this, ieso have also published a series of blogs on stress, including the signs of chronic stress, or visit the Help Guide, which have some recommendations for improving stress levels and overall wellbeing.
If you're experiencing increased levels of stress, there are things you can do to help you manage, from lifestyle changes to seeking help from a professional service. Depending on where you live in the UK, you may be able to access text-based CBT with ieso through your GP. Find out if you are eligible here.
If you live in the US, you can access further support by contacting your Primary Care Physician or learn about alternate options here.
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