Dealing with Stress - Top Tips
We know that too much stress can be bad for you. It can affect both physical and mental health. It is also extremely personal: different people find different situations stressful, and also find that different ways of coping may be more or less helpful to them.
It is therefore helpful to be aware of a wide range of tools and techniques for managing stress, and this page provides some tips that may be useful.
The tips start with how to recognise stress, and move on to the two main strategies for managing stress: avoidance and reduction.
The first step to managing and dealing with stress is to recognise it.
1. Learn to recognise the signs that you are becoming stressed
There are a wide range of possible signs and symptoms that may be associated with stress. These include headaches, stomach upsets and indigestion, and sleep problems. Many people also find they become very emotional and have trouble regulating their emotions.
Unfortunately, most of these signs are fairly non-specific: that is, they may be associated with many different illnesses and conditions. It can therefore be hard to identify when your symptoms are the result of stress. You should always consult a doctor if these symptoms last any length of time.
It is a good idea to learn to recognise the signs that you are becoming stressed, so that you can take action early on.
There is more about this in our page on What is Stress?
2. Identify your personal ‘stress triggers’
We all have particular situations or people that make us more stressed. Some of these are easily identifiable and may be avoidable. However, sometimes stress may build up over time, and result from a pattern of incidents or events, rather than a single trigger.
This will make it easier to take action to address your stress levels.
There are a number of actions you can take to help you avoid becoming stressed in the first place.
3. Look after yourself physically
When you are physically fit and well, it is much easier to cope with stress.
When you become stressed, it is harder to motivate yourself to care about what you eat, or whether you exercise. However, not doing so can also make you more stressed. Get into good habits while your stress levels are fairly low, and you may find that they never go up again. These ‘good habits’ include:
Taking regular exercise
Stressful situations increase the level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in your body.
These are the “fight or flight” hormones that evolution has hard-wired into our brains and which are designed to protect us from immediate bodily harm when we are under threat. However, stress in the modern age is rarely remedied by a fight or flight response. Physical exercise can be used as a surrogate to metabolise the excessive stress hormones and restore your body and mind to a calmer, more relaxed state.
Try to incorporate some physical activity into your daily routine on a regular basis, either before or after work, or at lunchtime. Regular physical activity will also improve the quality of your sleep.
See our page The Importance of Exercise for more.
Eating a good and balanced diet
In general, you should try to eat a healthy, well-balanced and nutritious diet. Avoid stimulants like caffeine and tobacco as much as possible, because they can make you feel irritable and on edge, which is stressful in itself. Also try to avoid refined sugars, which are often found in manufactured foods, because the way they are metabolised in the body can also make you feel tired and irritable.
For more, see our page on Stress, Nutrition and Diet for an overview of how what you eat can affect your stress levels.
Getting enough sleep
A lack of sleep is a significant cause of stress, and sleep is also affected by stress. This therefore creates a vicious cycle.
Try to get into a good sleep routine. For example, make sure that your bedroom is a tranquil oasis with no reminders of the things that cause you stress. Avoid caffeine during the evening, as well as excessive alcohol if you know that this leads to disturbed sleep. Stop doing any mentally demanding work (and also avoid phones and other screens) several hours before going to bed so that you give your brain time to calm down. Try taking a warm bath or reading a calming, undemanding book for a few minutes to relax your body, tire your eyes and help you forget about the things that worry you.
You should also aim to go to bed at roughly the same time each day so that your mind and body get used to a predictable bedtime routine.
There is more about this in our pages What is Sleep? and How to Sleep - The Importance of Sleep.
You can assess your levels of daytime sleepiness with the Epworth Sleepiness Scale.
4. Manage your time
At times, we all feel overburdened by our 'To Do' list and this is a common cause of stress. Accept that you cannot do everything at once and start to prioritise your tasks and set aside time for each one.
Make a list of all the things that you need to do and list them in order of genuine priority. Note what tasks you need to do personally and what can be delegated to others to do. Record which tasks need to be done immediately, in the next week, in the next month, or when time allows.
You can use a grid like the Priority Matrix to help you prioritise. There is more about this in our page on Time Management.
By editing what might have started out as an overwhelming and unmanageable task list, you can break it down into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks spread out over a longer time frame, with some tasks removed from the list entirely through delegation or because they are simply not important enough.
5. Learn to say ‘no’
A common cause of stress is having too much to do and too little time in which to do it. However, even in this situation, many people will still agree to take on additional responsibility.
Learning to say “No” to additional or unimportant requests will help to reduce your level of stress, and may also help you develop more self-confidence.
To learn to say “No”, you need to understand why you find it difficult. Many people find it hard to say “No” because they want to help and are trying to be nice and to be liked. For others, it is a fear of conflict, rejection or missed opportunities. Remember that these barriers to saying “No” are all self-created.
Top Tip! Practice makes perfect
You might feel reluctant to respond to a request with a straight “No”, at least at first. Instead think of some pre-prepared phrases to let other people down more gently. Practice saying phrases such as:
“I am sorry, but I can’t commit to this as I have other priorities at the moment.”
“Now is not a good time as I’m in the middle of something. Why don’t you ask me again at….?”
“I’d love to do this, but …”
There is more about this essential skill in our pages on Assertiveness.
6. Be more realistic about your capabilities
It is helpful to remember that most people underestimate how long it will take to do something, and overestimate how much they can do. This means that they end up taking on too much, and then failing to deliver.
Develop the simple habit of doubling your time estimates for any task.
You are then far more likely to under-promise and over-deliver. This will make everyone—including you—much happier than the other way round (if you over-promise and under-deliver).
7. Make time for fun and relaxation
It is important to include time for fun and relaxation in your schedule. These are important for helping you to feel good generally, and that in turn reduces stress, and keeps you healthy. Looking forward to doing things that you enjoy, and that give you pleasure, helps when you have to cope with less pleasant aspects of life. What’s more, laughter has huge positive benefits for both mental and physical health.
If you are working hard, and are conscientious, however, it can feel ‘wrong’ to take time out to relax and have fun.
It is therefore important to remember that you and your health are important. You should not ignore your physical or mental health in favour of more urgent activities.
If you consciously put relaxing or fun activities into your diary, and think of this as a way to keep yourself healthy and able to work, you are likely to feel much more positive. This, in turn, will mean that you feel less guilty, and therefore stressed, about doing it.
8. Develop techniques that will help you to feel in control of your life
There is plenty of research that suggests that the single factor that causes most stress is feeling out of control.
One way that you can help yourself to avoid stress is to develop techniques to help you solve problems and make decisions more easily.
For example, one problem-solving technique involves writing down the problem and coming up with as many possible solutions as you can. Decide on the good and bad points of each one and select the best solution. Write down each step that you need to take as part of the solution: what will be done, how will it be done, when will it be done, who is involved and where will it take place.
There is more about this and other techniques in our series of pages on Problem-Solving and Decision-Making.
9. Rest if you are ill
If you are feeling unwell, do not feel that you have to carry on regardless. Nobody is indispensable. Even if you feel that you have too much work to stop, trying to continue when you are ill will only make the situation worse.
A short spell of time off and rest will enable you to recover faster and return to work.
It is, of course, not possible to avoid all stressful events and people. You may therefore need to take action to reduce your stress.
10. Focus on just two to three stressors at a time
You cannot deal with everything or everyone in your life that makes you feel stressed. Instead, focus on just two or three main stressors at a time.
If you use a stress diary, or a tool like our quiz What’s Stressing You Out?, it is easy to identify the most common and/or most stressful situations in your life. You can then start to work out what you can do to resolve them.
Once you have sorted your ‘top stressors’, you can then move onto lesser stressors.
11. Build strong positive relationships with people who make you feel good—and avoid those who don’t
Research suggests that stress builds up over time, through multiple small interactions with others. By themselves, few single incidents are intrinsically stressful. However, put them together, and the story is very different.
It is hard to avoid these ‘micro-stressors’, because they are too frequent and too pervasive. However, there are ways to address them, and the most important is to focus on your relationships with others. Research suggests that the two most important things you can do are to build strong relationships and connections with people who make you feel good, and avoid those who don’t.
There is more about this in our page on Micro-Stressors.
12. Talk to someone
Just talking to someone about how you feel can be helpful.
Talking can work by either distracting you from your stressful thoughts or releasing some of the built-up tension by discussing it.
Stress can cloud your judgement and prevent you from seeing things clearly. Talking things through with a friend, work colleague, or a trained professional, can help you find solutions to your stress and put your problems into perspective. Seeking professional help can also lead you to other forms of therapy, such as laughter therapy, which is known to reduce the level of stress hormones.
There is more about professional help in our pages What is Counselling? and Counselling Approaches.
13. Step up your avoidance of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
We previously said that it was a good idea not to have too much caffeine, alcohol and nicotine as a way to avoid stress. If you are already feeling stressed, this becomes even more important. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants and so will increase your level of stress rather than reduce it.
Alcohol is a depressant when taken in large quantities, but acts as a stimulant in smaller quantities. Using alcohol as a way to alleviate stress is therefore not ultimately helpful.
Swap caffeinated and alcoholic drinks for water, herbal teas, or diluted natural fruit juices and aim to keep yourself hydrated. This will enable your body to cope better with stress.
You should also aim to avoid or reduce your intake of refined sugars - they are contained in many manufactured foods (even in savoury foods such as salad dressings and bread) and can cause energy crashes which may lead you to feel tired and irritable.
There is more about this in our page What are Carbohydrates?.
14. Try relaxation techniques
There are a number of relaxation techniques that may be helpful in reducing stress. These include self-hypnosis, yoga, and meditation. It may be worth trying a few to see what works best for you.
Don't worry if you find it difficult to relax at first. Relaxation is a skill that needs to be learned and will improve with practice.
See our section on Relaxation Techniques including Yoga Nidra. You may also find our page on Mindfulness useful.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Understand and Manage Stress in Your Life
Learn more about the nature of stress and how you can effectively cope with stress at work, at home and in life generally. The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management eBook covers all you need to know to help you through those stressful times and become more resilient.
Living with Stress
In the final analysis, it is not possible to remove all stress completely, and you may need to learn to live with it, at least to some extent.
15. Embrace the adrenaline, and treat it as positive
Fortunately, there is evidence that some level of stress is actually helpful, and can improve performance—provided you believe that this is the case.
Elite athletes, for example, often believe that adrenaline, one of the main stress hormones, is helpful in improving performance. It is, after all, the ‘flight or fight’ hormone, so you can harness it to help you to ‘fight’. Changing your mindset to embrace adrenaline can be a good start to changing how you view stress, especially if you have taken steps to reduce and avoid it more generally.