When Covid hit we lost connection, certainty and control – and we never really got it back again. Now we’re grappling with the aftermath, with political and global uncertainty, health worries, and a cost-of-living crisis that’s hit everyone’s pockets, hard.
The thing is, that living with high levels of stress for long periods of time takes a toll. Being stressed out for long enough can lead to burn out - and hundreds of thousands of Brits are feeling that strain.
Research by the Stress Management Society found that 74% of people felt unable to cope with the levels of stress they’re experiencing. 61% are more anxious than usual. 40% of people said burnout led them to leave their jobs in 2021. 32% were experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Stress can be the gateway to more serious mental health problems, and learning how to manage it is key.
We spoke to our GP in residence Dr Faye Gallagher about what she’s seeing in the community, how people can recognise stress, and what they can do to look after themselves.
What is stress?
“Stress is the body’s reaction to feeling under pressure. When people feel stressed they have too much on their plate and they don’t have the resources to deal with it.
“It’s often not just one big bad thing that happens, but lots of little things and lots of little worries that add up. That means it can sneak up on you.
“Stress can affect you emotionally and physically, and it can actually be useful. It’s what made our ancestors know to run away from sabre tooth tigers! But too much stress over too long a period can be really damaging.”
What’s the difference between stress, anxiety and depression?
“Feeling stressed can cause anxiety and depression, which often go hand in hand.
“Anxiety is constant worry and bad, intrusive thoughts. Depression is a low mood that lasts a long time and impacts your everyday life.”
Are you seeing a lot of stress?
“Yes. I would say that mental health problems now take up at least a third of my time. And that’s definitely on the increase.
“Covid has impacted people in so many ways. There have been redundancies and financial struggles, losses and grief. Living, working and homeschooling in such close quarters has intensified issues in relationships. Children and adults have been left confused by the ongoing fear and uncertainty of changing goal posts. The emotional stresses have all been so much harder to deal with in social isolation and without normal support networks.
“I think it’s important to note that feeling stressed is a very normal and reasonable reaction to all that.”
What does stress look like?
“Stress comes out in so many different ways. It could be that your thoughts are racing, that you’re irritable or aggressive, unable to enjoy yourself or concentrate. Some people feel a sense of dread, or find it hard to make decisions. Or it could come out as something physical – shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, or digestive issues. Some people feel dizzy or sick, or actually have panic attacks.
“None of those physical symptoms are ‘in your head’. It’s very real, often debilitating, and it’s very important to get help when you need it.”
Who is stressed?
“I think so many people are struggling, from all walks of life and all age groups.
“Infants and toddlers have been born into a world of limited physical contact and socialisation. Anxiety is on the up in school children, and we’re sadly seeing more reports of self harm. All age groups are missing social interactions, and with sport and exercise limited these normally great stress relievers and mood boosters have been taken away from people – particularly young men.
“Families have struggled on as carers for relatives who would normally have had community support or respite. Our elderly and all our vulnerable patients have been cut off from their social anchors. It’s been a really, really tough time for everyone, and I think we’re only just starting to see the true long-tail impact on mental health.”
What happens when you go to your GP feeling stressed?
“The first thing I do is listen. Then I say well done for making the call today. We do understand how hard it is for people to make that first step.
“Then we talk about the person’s individual situation, because my advice will be different for everyone.”
Where do you start in dealing with stress?
“First, we discuss if there are any root causes of stress, so we can plan together what we can do about them. Sometimes having time off is the right thing to do to enable someone thinking and breathing space to get back on track.
“There are resources and organisations out there to help people struggling with caring responsibilities, with addiction problems, and with abuse or domestic violence. There are food banks for people who can’t make ends meet, and legal support and advice organisations. We’ll make a plan to try and relieve some of those stress factors, and I’ll follow up to see if people have been able to make those connections and get that help.
“We shouldn’t overlook possibly physical contributors, either. Poor mental health and stress is often associated with poor physical health, so it’s important to check on this, too.”
What else can we do about stress?
“The most important thing you can do is to talk about it. So going to your GP is a good start – it’s what we’re here for. Sometimes having someone listen and acknowledge you - and finding out you’re not alone - can be enough to make things feel more manageable.
“Next it is lifestyle, I’m afraid! I know we’re fed up of being told to stop smoking and drinking and to go for more walks, but these things really are proven to make a difference! Even just cutting your screen time and going to bed at a regular hour can have a huge impact on your mood and stress levels.”
What about counselling?
“The recommended first port of call for any mental health condition is talking therapy, but I’m not going to lie, the waiting lists are long. That in itself is incredibly stressful for GPs, too, because we know what a difference it could make.
“While you’re waiting for a counsellor, it’s so important to talk to SOMEONE. I know we’re all zoomed out, but finding some connection and opening up to someone in your life is absolutely key.”
What about medication?
“Medication is considered appropriate for some patients, and it’s not something anyone should be afraid of. These treatments are there if you need them, and if other actions aren’t bringing relief. Just know it’s not an overnight fix – but that it can work really well for some people.
“Keep talking to your GP – there are lots of options and there really is a lot of support out there to help you.”