If you’re feeling weighed down by a stressful situation, it’s important to know that help is available. We’ve put together this list of practical steps you can take.
Every person’s experience with stress is different. Whether you’re worried about work, money, relationships or your health, there are always challenges to deal with.
Despite stress being a part of all our lives, it’s still something many of us have trouble talking about. According to the mental health charity Mind, 90% of Brits who take a day off work due to stress make up an excuse rather than give their employer the real reason.
If you’re feeling weighed down by a stressful situation, it’s important to know that help is available. From changing your lifestyle to sharing your problems, we’ve put together this list of practical steps you can take to keep on top of stress and lead a happier life.
LOOKING AFTER YOUR BODY
1. Get some exercise
Physical activity prompts your brain to release endorphins, which are a natural mood-booster for your body. These clever hormones tackle lots of the problems linked to stress - they reduce fatigue, increase your concentration and relieve tension. Exercising also uses up energy, which is useful if stress stops you sleeping.
Exercise can be the best way to tackle the root cause of stress. If you’re concerned about your health, or worried about your weight, looking after your body is a crucial first step.
2. Get enough sleep
There’s a clear link between stress and sleep. Too much stress makes it difficult to sleep, while not enough sleep can cause stress. It’s easy to see how an unpleasant cycle could develop.
Getting seven to nine hours of sleep will ensure you wake up refreshed every day. Any less than that and tiredness will take its toll. A 2012 study showed how sleep-deprived people tend to become stressed by situations much more quickly than those who have slept well.
3. But not too much!
It turns out you can’t use managing stress as your excuse for an extra-long lie-in. Sorry about that. Sleeping way over the recommended amount of time can have a similar impact on your mental function as not enough sleep.
4. Take a bath
Relaxation is the key to relieving stress and few things are more relaxing than a hot bath. There are a number of theories as to why it’s so soothing.
Some believe that being warm and surrounded by water takes us back to the safety of the womb. Others cite popular bath oils such as lavender and eucalyptus as the reason a soak in the tub can wash all your troubles away.
5. Have sex
Sex is one of the most effective stress-busters you’ll find. We know this because scientists have studied it. A lot. One of the more interesting investigations found that regular sex increases cell production in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for controlling our stress response.
Don’t have a partner? Not to worry - you can get the same results on your own. If you know what we mean.
6. Have a massage
There have been numerous studies into the benefits of massage in reducing stress. While this is one of your more expensive options, it has a high chance of working.
Be aware that there’s real science to an effective massage, so while letting your partner have a go might seem like a clever shortcut, you need to see a professional to feel the full effect.
7. Take a deep breath
We’ve probably all heard this advice at some point and, if you do it properly, it really can reduce stress. Most breathing exercises involve taking slow, deep breaths for around three to five minutes each day.
It’s vital to do your exercises regularly if you want them to have any long-term effect. A yoga class can help you stay on track and potentially meet other people who are trying to tackle stress.
8. If you’re ill, rest
In our deadline-driven, high-pressure world, the idea of taking a day off can seem laughable. That said, if you’re feeling under the weather, it really is best to rest and recover.
Whether you’re at work or at home, you’re not at your best if you’re ill. Not being able to function as you normally would can be stressful, so there’s not much to gain by trying to power through.
9. Don’t hide behind alcohol
At the end of a long, stressful day, you might have a drink to relax in the evening. Unfortunately, if this happens on a regular basis, it could be dangerous.
Long-term alcohol consumption is linked to feelings of anxiety, while heavy use will harm your brain and leave you less mentally sharp than you should be.
10. Don’t try to smoke your troubles away
Smoking makes most illnesses worse. Now you can add stress to that list.
The nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, which is why quitting is so hard. Of course, it also means that when your addiction isn’t satisfied, you become stressed. As we know, smoking is terrible for your long-term health, so making the effort to quit has many rewards.
11. Squeeze a stress ball
Stress balls can be a great short-term outlet for the tension stress causes, as repeatedly contracting and relaxing your muscles can have a calming effect. For example, some medical centres give them to patients while they wait for their appointment.
12. Laugh a lot
They say laughter is the best medicine and, when it comes to stress, it certainly is.
Laughing makes us feel great because we’re responding to something funny or happy. On a scientific level, that releases endorphins and cuts stress-causing hormones such as cortisol. Even if you don’t feel like laughing, once you start, your mood will quickly improve.
13. Cry it out
It’s 2017 and the days of treating crying as a sign of weakness should be long gone. Crying can release the tension that builds up when you’re stressed. The outburst of emotion can leave you calmer and and more relaxed.
Some studies have also claimed that emotional tears contain higher levels of stress-related hormones than other types of tears, such as those produced by physical pain.
14. Throw some shapes
We’ve talked about how exercise can boost your mood and relieve stress, but what if you don’t fancy tackling a 10k just yet? Dancing is a fun way to get the exercise you need, plus you get to listen to your favourite songs while you do it, so it’s win-win.
EAT AND DRINK HEALTHILY
15. Redefine ‘comfort eating’
It’s pretty common to turn to food in times of stress. Sadly, many of us gorge on food that’s doing us no good at all, both from a stress perspective and for our general health.
Turning this around won’t be easy. However, by choosing healthier options when you comfort eat, you’ll put yourself in a better position to deal with stress.
16. Steer clear of caffeine and sugar
These are short term solutions that won’t help you manage stress in the long-term. The negatives, such as weight gain and an increased risk of heart problems, far outweigh the positives.
A cup of coffee or cheeky chocolate bar will give you a temporary high, but your blood sugar will soon come crashing down again, bringing your stress back with it.
17. Eat your greens
Green vegetables are high in folate, a B vitamin that helps to regulate both stress-causing cortisol and stress-relieving serotonin, in order to keep your mood stable.
High-folate options include asparagus, broccoli, peas, Brussels sprouts, kale and spinach. Steaming is the best cooking method to lock all the nutrients in.
18. Break out the berries
It’s no secret that fruit is good for you, and if you’re trying to beat stress, anything that ends in ‘berry’ is a good place to start.
Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are all packed with Vitamin C, which boosts melatonin, the hormone that relaxes your body before sleep. Then there are blueberries, which contain an antioxidant known as anthocyanin that makes your mind sharp and keeps stress at bay.
19. Drink chamomile tea
Chamomile is a plant well-known for its relaxing properties. A 2009 study from the University of Pennsylvania tested chamomile supplements on 57 people who had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
Researchers found that after taking the supplements for two months, subjects recorded a significant drop in stress symptoms.
20. Have oatmeal for breakfast
Like all whole grains, oatmeal is a complex carbohydrate. These prompt your brain to produce serotonin, so grabbing a bowl of oatmeal to start the day will set you up nicely to handle any stress that comes your way.
21. Top up your omega-3
Studies have shown that omega-3 can increase serotonin production and boost your mood. What’s more, those who don’t get enough are more prone to mental health problems, such as anxiety.
The best source of omega-3 is an oily fish like salmon or mackerel. The health benefits stretch way beyond stress, so health guidelines suggest you should eat at least one portion of oily fish per week.
If you’re a vegan, or just not a fan of fish, you’ll also find omega-3 in walnuts and tofu, or there are supplements available.
22. Jump on the avocado bandwagon
There’s hardly a menu left in the UK that doesn’t feature avocado. It’s a popular fruit, which is good news if you’re looking for ways to tackle stress.
We’re back to B vitamins here, such as niacin (B3), which helps your nervous system function and pyridoxine (B6), which helps your brain produce serotonin. Studies have also linked a deficiency of Vitamin B12 with stress.
TAKE BACK CONTROL
23. Don’t do nothing
These days, it’s easy to accept that stress is just part of life. While that’s true, it doesn’t mean you should ignore it.
The symptoms of stress aren’t always visible and the long term effects can be very damaging. Chronic stress is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and strokes, a weak immune system and a faster ageing process. That should be enough to inspire you to take action!
24. Set goals
One of the biggest reasons people have for feeling stressed is a perceived lack of control over what’s happening in their life. If this sounds like you, setting goals could help you get a firmer grip on things.
Choose realistic targets that are important to you and map out how you’ll achieve them. Taking positive steps towards these goals will help you feel more in charge and reduce stress.
No matter how much you’d like to, you can’t do everything. The work is never done and that means some of it will have to wait. By giving yourself an unrealistic workload, you’re setting yourself up to fail, which is almost certain to cause a spike in your stress levels.
Don’t subject yourself to that feeling every day. Focus on the most important elements of your to-do list and you’ll feel much more positive about your accomplishments.
Okay, we’ve acknowledged that you can’t do everything, but you also can’t just leave important tasks undone. This is where it helps to realise that you don’t have to do everything on your own.
Whether it’s organising a rota that divides chores fairly among your family members, or asking a colleague for help with a large work project, reducing the pressure on yourself is a good way to take care of stress.
27. Say ‘no’ more
Being helpful is a good quality to have, but there has to be a limit. Finding where that limit is can help you avoid stress. Whether it’s taking on tasks at work or agreeing to do favours for friends and family, keep your to-do list manageable.
You don’t have to stop helping people, but you can find a compromise. For example, you could explain that you don’t have time right now and offer to help at a later date.
28. Do your most stressful tasks first
It’s tempting to leave the most stressful tasks on your to-do list until last, but try doing them first instead.
Allowing a stressful job to hang over your head all day can build it up to be more difficult than it is. Getting it out of the way early stops it from becoming this monster and leaves you free to spend the rest of your day on more enjoyable projects.
29. Avoid people who make you stressed
You’ll meet many people over the course of your life. You’re not obliged to be friends with all of them. If you find being around a certain person stressful, try to reduce the amount of time you spend with them, or end the relationship.
If you’re obliged to spend time around this person, e.g. if they’re a work colleague, you may need to have a frank, two-way discussion with them that’ll give you both room to move forward.
30. Write things down
This works on a couple of levels. Firstly, if you have a bad memory, the possibility of forgetting important things can cause stress. Invest in a notebook or some post-its and keep a list where you can see it.
Secondly, we know that stress can cause insomnia, so putting problems down on paper and jotting down some potential solutions before bed can help you get a good night’s sleep.
31. Leave earlier
Do you regularly spend your mornings sitting in your car, stressed about the traffic jam that’s making you late for work? Are you constantly turning up late and unprepared for meetings or social gatherings? The answer is pretty simple. Leave earlier!
So what if you’re a little early? In the age of the smartphone, you can easily keep yourself occupied while you wait. Having said that…
32. Switch off your phone
A 2013 study of 1,000 people from online stress management system meQuilibrium found that 73% of people feel their electronic device contributes to stress.
That’s a pretty persuasive argument for powering down every now and then! Where possible, have a couple of nights a week where you switch off your phone once you’re home for the evening. In particular, try not to be on it just before bed, as this can disrupt your sleep and add to your stress.
33. Take a social media break
From a psychological perspective social media is one of the most stressful places to be. It’s so easy to compare yourself unfavourably against someone else’s filtered version of their life.
Feeling as though you’re lagging behind your peers can cause stress, but don’t forget that no one’s social media profile tells the full story. Take some time away from social media and focus on what you can control - your own success.
34. Leave the screen alone
If you work in front of a computer all day, try and give yourself the occasional break from staring at the screen. A change of scene is a good way to break up the day and keep stress at bay.
This doesn’t necessarily mean stop working. You could get up and respond to a colleague’s email in person, for example. Just five minutes away from your screen could make you so much more productive later in the day.
35. Stay tidy
If your home or workspace is messy, studies have shown that this makes stress more likely. Clutter increases anxiety, as we never know where anything is, or how long it’ll take to deal with all of the things we can see.
Unfortunately, a 2012 study at Yale University found that even getting rid of clutter can cause stress. It seems we form an emotional attachment to our belongings, even if they have no practical use. Despite this, finding a way to restore a little order to your surroundings can help keep stress at bay.
APPRECIATE THE LITTLE THINGS IN LIFE
36. Do a good deed
When you’re stressed, it’s understandable that you’ll focus on your own problems. However, a 2015 study from the University of California and Yale University showed that helping other people makes us feel good too.
Even if it’s a small gesture like making a colleague a cup of tea when they’re too busy to leave their desk, that warm glow you get inside could have more of an effect than you realise.
37. Get a dog
Dogs are great to have around. So much so, they can actually help you forget your troubles and relieve stress. We’ve talked about how exercise can help you overcome stress, so walking your dog can be a real stress-buster!
38. Listen to your favourite song
There have been many studies into the effect of music on stress. For some people, softer, slower music is the best way to soothe a stressed mind. For others, angrier tunes have proved a great way of releasing pent-up tension.
39. Be at one with nature
Studies have shown that looking at some beautiful scenery can give your mood a boost. Something as simple as going for a walk in the countryside or watching the sun go down could be all you need to brush off the stresses of your day.
40. Set your imagination free
We all lead such busy lives, you might not even remember the last time you got lost in a good book. Perhaps it’s about time you did, as research carried out at the University of Sussex in 2009 found that just six minutes of reading can be enough to reduce stress levels by 66%.
If the world of fiction doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of self-help books out there that you might find useful in your bid to take down stress.
41. Talk to your friends and family
Never underestimate the power of a good chat. Your friends and family will be only too keen to help you deal with stress. From offering suggestions you wouldn’t have thought of, to taking practical steps that’ll remove some of the pressure on you, your loved ones can provide invaluable support.
42. Make it about you
There are lots of suggestions here, but ultimately tackling stress is about finding what works for you. Don’t worry about what others are doing. Whatever relaxes you, do that.
We tend to associate relaxation with peace and quiet, but if bungee jumping or watching action films is what chills you out, that’s what you should do.
Need help with stress?
When you’re stressed, it can feel like you simply don’t have time to keep on top of everything. That means that you probably haven’t even considered making time to see a doctor.
By seeing one of our GPs online, you won’t have to take time off work, sit in a waiting room for hours or travel to your appointment. You don’t need to be physically examined, so you can simply discuss your stress problems face-to-face with an experienced UK doctor in just six minutes.
Our GPs can offer useful medical advice, write a prescription or refer you to a mental health specialist who will help you learn how to manage stress effectively.See a doctor Find out more about stress