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People at Work guide to coping with stress

Updated: Apr 4

We all experience periods of stress during our busy lives. Stress is a normal response to challenging situations and is a natural way for our bodies to cope. We need a certain amount of stress to function at a high level, for example just before an exam or interview, or as an athlete before a race. Where stress becomes a problem is when it continues over time, at the same time as our ability to cope with it is reduced. When we are unable to deal with stress it can negatively impact every aspect of our lives so needs to be acknowledged and dealt with sensitively and appropriately.

What is stress and when does it become a problem?

The stress response is a throwback to our evolutionary past and you might have come across the “Flight, fight or freeze” response (also called hyperarousal). This natural effect allows us to run away from threatening situations, stand and face/fight the threat or simply stop what we are doing. At this time the body produces hormones which are chemical stress signals. This is a normal and appropriate survival response needed to sharpen our senses to deal with the “threat” or stressful situation.

Where stress becomes a problem is when that natural stress response is triggered inappropriately or in the absence of a genuine threat. Research has shown that the body can be tricked into producing these stress chemicals simply by thinking about a real or imaginary threat or stressful situation. If this continues, over time it can lead to a chronic level of stress which begins to impact negatively on our ability to function. The stress chemicals that were helpful in the presence of a real threat are now not an appropriate response and can cause both physical and mental health problems.

Identifying the causes of stress

The first step in taking back control of the situation is to identify the underlying causes of the stress.

Whether the stress originates at home or at work, it can be very difficult not to carry it with you all the time. It can often be the case that the final straw that causes us to react in an inappropriate way or feel out of control is not the actual cause, but merely a trigger.

It can be helpful to spend some time working out exactly what is causing the problem(s) and it is up to us as individuals to be proactive in addressing the cause and effect of stress.

Recognising when stress is causing physical and mental health issues

While a certain amount of stress is natural and beneficial, too much or for too long can create physical and mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, IBS, headaches, low mood etc. and these can all impact on our everyday lives.

The second step in dealing with stress is recognising this is happening and acknowledging it. Stress-related ill-health is a national issue and can affect anyone.

It is not a sign of weakness, a lack of competence, or an “inability to cope with real life” and it is a sign of strength to recognise the impact it is having and to seek help.

Click here to find out lots more information about stress and the ways to manage stress and build resilience.

Symptoms of Stress

Emotional symptoms of stress can include:

  • Agitation, frustration, short-temperedness and moodiness

  • Feelings of being overwhelmed or out of control.

  • Problems relaxing

  • Low self-esteem

Physical symptoms of stress can include:

  • Low energy

  • Headaches

  • Digestive problems

  • Muscular aches and pains

  • Chest Pain

  • Insomnia or fatigue

  • Low immune system

  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability

Cognitive symptoms of stress include:

  • Constant worrying

  • Racing thoughts and an inability to “switch off”

  • Forgetfulness

  • Poor concentration

  • Poor judgment

  • Undue negativity

Tips for dealing with stress.

  • Talk to your GP

  • If you feel able to, talk to your manager, HR or OH and be clear about how you are feeling and what you need. They may refer you to your EAP who can support you.

  • Enlist the help and support of family/friends.

  • Take time for yourself: read a book, go for a walk, have a relaxing bath, book a holiday, meet friends for example.

  • Practice self-care: eat well, get enough sleep and try and do some exercise if you can.

  • Try some relaxation strategies such as yoga, meditation or mindfulness, keep a gratitude journal.

  • Be gentle with yourself and tell yourself that although it’s tough at the moment, it WILL get better.

Ask yourself a question: Can the cause(s) of my stress be controlled by me?

  • If they can; Break down the problem(s) into more manageable chunks, plan how to tackle them and ensure you balance that with the self-care tips above.

  • If they can’t; Think about accepting the situation for what it is and take steps to try and mitigate the effects on your mental health.

Talk to a People at Work first responder and find out how we can be part of your wellbeing support.

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