“I’m just a bit stressed”. “I’m stressing out”. “It’s been a bit stressful, lately”.
The trouble with stress is that it can creep up on you. And sometimes the more serious symptoms aren’t always obvious - or are easily put down to other things. It’s only when you look at them all together that you can see how stressed you are, and how big an impact it’s actually having on your life.
And when you can see that, you can decide what to DO about it.
So could YOU be stressed?
We worked with our GP in residence Dr Faye Gallagher to come up with some key questions you should ask yourself about your stress levels - and how they’re affecting you.
The Stress Test
Stress can change how you think. Look at the questions below and see if any of them apply to you.
- Are you having difficulty keeping everything in your head, or finding you forget things more easily, or that your mind suddenly goes blank?
- Do you find yourself having difficulty making decisions – even over little things like what to have for tea?
- Do you feel like you’ve got ‘brain fog’ and everything is hard to focus on?
- Do have problems concentrating on things?
- Do you find yourself with spinning thoughts?
- Do you think about worse case scenarios or feel a sense of doom?
- Are you doubting yourself, or struggling with self-esteem?
Stress also impacts your emotions. If you notice a change in how you’re feeling or responding to others, take a look at the questions below.
- Are you finding your mood swinging or changing quickly?
- Are small things irritating you, or do you find that you’ve lost patience?
- Do you ever feel angry for no reason?
- Have you found yourself crying over little things?
- Do you ever feel overwhelmed, or like you can’t cope?
- Are you worrying more about things little and big?
- Has your mood been consistently low for some time?
If your thinking and your emotions are different, that often comes out in how you behave. Take a look at the questions below to see if any of this sounds familiar.
- Do you find yourself struggling to talk to people, avoiding phone or zoom calls?
- Are you pulling away from family and friends because you’d prefer to be alone or it’s just too much effort?
- Are you sleeping more than usual and struggling to wake up?
- Are you struggling to get to sleep or stay asleep all night?
- Are you drinking more alcohol more regularly, to make yourself feel better?
- Do you find yourself eating more to feel better?
- Are you forgetting to eat or skipping meals?
- Have you started gambling, or gambling more?
- Are you spending a lot of time on social media scrolling?
- Do you feel like you’ve lost your sense of humour, or that you’re struggling to find things funny and not laughing as much as usual?
- Have you stopped exercising or following other hobbies?
Feeling stressed, particularly if you’ve been stressed for a long time, can have a physical effect on your body. Those symptoms can vary widely, but it’s worth thinking about if any of them could be stress-related.
- Are you getting more headaches than usual?
- Have your bowel movements changed - are you feeling constipated or do you have diarrhoea, or stomach pains/gripes?
- Do you find your heart is racing or beating too fast and hard?
- Have you had any pains in your chest?
- Are you short of breath or feeling breathless even when you’re not exercising?
- Do you ever feel dizzy or light headed?
- Are you finding you get ill with colds more easily and find them harder to shake off?
- Do you have general aches or pains – particularly in your back?
If you can answer Yes to questions in each of these sections, it could well be time to do something about your stress levels. Some of these could indicate your stress has started to make you anxious or depressed. But where do you start on how to start to feel better?
We’ve got ten first steps to take.
Coping with stress – 10 first steps
Talk to someone
Feeling stressed and alone is worse than just feeling stressed, and one of the most important things you can do is talk to someone. Reach out to a friend or someone you trust, and have a real conversation about how you’re feeling.
Be kind to yourself
Being stressed is not a failing. Finding things hard is not being ungrateful for your lot. Give yourself a break, acknowledge the hard things, and think about how you’d talk to a friend going through the same thing.
Eat well/drink well
It’s boring but it’s true. Stay away from the short term sugar fixes that are going to exacerbate your highs and lows, limit alcohol for the same reason, and eat the good things you know you’re supposed to with lots and lots of water. Many people are dehydrated without knowing it, and it makes you feel terrible.
We all put off going to bed because the next day feels overwhelming and going to sleep means it will come too soon. But going to bed and rising at a consistent time will help your body and your mind. Try it for a week.
Move your body
Another walk. YAWN. We know. But getting outside into nature and moving your body is proven to help stress and other mental health issues. Try and make it a habit, try and do it with someone else to relieve the monotony.
Get off your phone
Another boring one. But if you can ban yourself from scrolling for just an hour or so an evening – especially before bed – your mind will race less, your eyes will get a rest, and you’ll be able to get some proper time out from the busy scary world.
Break up big tasks, and say no to new ones
Take big things one step at a time, break them into manageable chunks - and congratulate yourself for achieving each one. Then say no to fresh demands on your time and resources. Putting yourself first can be really hard, but having boundaries is necessary. Try saying, “I can’t right now, I’m sorry, but come back to me in a few weeks.”
Learn to breathe
You’ve probably been doing this all wrong. When you’re stressed, you automatically panic breathe faster from the top of your lungs. Over time, that can cause breathlessness and back ache. Re-learning how to deep breathe can make a huge difference, making your belly and rib cage rise with an inhale and holding your lungs on empty for a few beats on exhale. Try this exercise here.
Change your thoughts
This is one of the hardest steps. Whatever you think of Mindfulness, training yourself to be in the moment, notice your body, reframe unhelpful thoughts and adopt a positive mindset can help you cope with your stress better. There’s loads of resources out there, and it needn’t take up more than a few minutes of your day. Try the NHS’s Silvercloud course here.
If nothing else is making a difference, it’s time to ask for more help. If your work has an EAP service, use it. Visit Mind. Call the Samaritans. Make an appointment with your GP. They really are all there to help.
Find out more about stress and what happens when you talk to your GP in our stress special, with our Dr in residence Dr Faye Gallagher.
Equipsme stress support
Don’t forget – if you’re an Equipsme member you can access our 24/7 GP out of hours, or talk to someone on the AXA Health nurse support line.
If our Stress Support benefit is part of your plan, you can get crisis support and up to 8 counselling sessions with a professional counsellor for free.
- Memory problems
- Brain fog
- Whirling thoughts
- Thinking in worst case scenarios
- Self doubt
- Poor concentration
- Mood swings
- Crying – including over little things
- Feeling hopeless
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Struggling to talk to people
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Drinking too much
- Unable to laugh or find things funny
- Digestive issues
- Heart racing/palpitations
- Chest pain
- Back pain
- High blood pressure
- Panic attacks