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Woman relieving stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety: signs, relief and management

16 MIN READ • 25th June 2021
Health and Wellbeing by Health and Wellbeing

The majority of us will suffer from stress or anxiety at some point in life. Read this guide to identify the signs of stress and anxiety, and ways to relieve this and manage your feelings.

The signs of stress and anxiety

Do the following stress and anxiety quotes sound familiar?

“My anxiety doesn’t come from thinking about the future but from wanting to control it.” – Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself

“Worry is my worst enemy… an enemy I unleash upon myself.” – Terri Guillemets

If you said yes, you’re not alone. According to mental health charity Mind, around one in four people in the UK experience mental health problems each year. Stress, anxiety and depression are three of the most common mental burdens we face, but it’s important to distinguish between them.

The difference between stress and an anxiety disorder is stark, although symptoms such as abdominal pain, chest pain and muscle tension can be similar. Stress levels commonly rise as someone runs themselves into the ground, and over-working and not coming up for air is frighteningly common in the current social climate. We’re working longer hours, for less money, in a more difficult economic environment than previous generations. With redundancies rife, and mortgage rates increasing, it’s no wonder that 85 percent of UK adults are experiencing stress-induced mental health problems regularly according to forthwithlife.co.uk. And it’s not just the younger population who suffer with these issues – older adults are more likely to experience loneliness, which can lead to anxiety, stress and depression.

The science of stress

When we experience stress, the stress hormone cortisol is released into the bloodstream, causing our heart rate and blood pressure to increase. This is beneficial in the short term, as your ‘fight or flight’ stress response is what has kept humans alive for thousands of years (for example, there is a wild animal approaching, do I stay and fight it or run away?), and is known as acute stress. This is the most common type and is the least damaging – we experience it multiple times a day, and it includes any mildly stressful situation, such as your alarm clock going off or an unexpected phone call when you’re trying to relax.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a cause for concern. According to Very Well Mind, chronic stress is a prolonged and constant feeling of emotional stress that can negatively affect your health if it goes untreated. It can be caused by the everyday pressures of family and work or by traumatic situations. The symptoms include fatigue, irritability and digestive problems. As well as that, according to an article published by the Institute for Chronic Pain (reporting on a manuscript in the Journal of Pain), stress can activate the immune system and cause increased inflammation, which can aggravate many causes of chronic pain.

The cause of anxiety

An anxiety disorder fundamentally stems from a person feeling unsafe, so it’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Fiona Lamb, clinical hypnotherapist explains: “Any anxiety is fear. Small things can cause someone who is anxious to feel very stressed and panicky. 

“Social anxiety can be very lonely and isolating, but with love, support and care, people do recover. It’s important for someone experiencing social anxiety disorder to keep a strong connection with those that they trust.” Separation anxiety disorder can be linked with social anxiety, and involves a person worrying about issues such as sleeping alone, the safety of a family member and being parted from home or loved ones.

Chronic anxiety, meanwhile, is known as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). According to Help Guide, GAD is a common anxiety disorder that involves chronic worrying, nervousness and tension. Unlike a phobia, where your fear is connected to a specific thing or situation, the anxiety of GAD is diffused – a general feeling of dread or unease that colours your whole life. You may be wondering how GAD differs from obsessive compulsive disorder. As the experts at  Healthline explain, the main differences are the content of your anxiety, the ‘stickiness’ of your thoughts and whether or not rituals and compulsions are involved.

Anxiety symptoms

Anxiety symptoms can include panic disorder which, according to the NHS, is an anxiety disorder where you regularly have sudden attacks of panic or fear. Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety and panic at certain times. It’s a natural response to stressful or dangerous situations, but someone with panic disorder has feelings of anxiety, stress and panic regularly and at any time, often for no apparent reason.

How does depression differ from stress and anxiety?

Depression is a mental illness that causes a person to lose feelings of joy, meaning or purpose. Abi Taylor-Spencer, medical technician at Smart TMS explains: “It’s crucial to remember that depression isn’t a choice. A person can have everything that may make someone else happy, but it makes no difference to how they feel – they’re still mentally unwell, and telling anyone who is going through depression that they should be grateful is unsupportive.” If you are struggling with depression, speak to your GP. They may be able to prescribe you SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressants, which work by increasing levels of serotonin (the feel good hormone) in the brain.

Stress and anxiety test

If you recognise any of the anxiety disorder traits outlined above, you might be in need of a lifestyle change. To get started, life fulfilment coach Iona Russell has compiled a quick stress and anxiety test to see how you’re feeling, with suggestions on what you can do to improve your wellbeing.

  1. How are you feeling in yourself?

A Motivated and happy

B Sluggish and tired

C OK, nothing terrible to report

 

  1. How would you describe your energy levels?

A I’m good to go most of the time

B I struggle to get up, or sleep well most of the time

C I experience regular dips

 

  1. Do you sleep OK?

A I get a good seven to eight hours and feel great

B I struggle to get to, or stay asleep

C I get seven to eight hours, but it never feels enough

 

  1. How is your diet?

A I eat a balanced diet

B I live on coffee and eat on the go

C I could probably eat a little better

 

  1. How do you manage your time?

A I like to think I have a good work /life balance

B Sleep, work, eat, repeat

C I try to have a balance, but this is not always the case

 

  1. Do you make time for yourself?

A Yes, I try to do something for me – I swim, go to the gym or read daily

B No, it’s difficult to fit it in and when I do, I just want to sleep

C It’s on my list

 

  1. Let’s talk about meditation – do you do it?

A Yes, I’ve adopted it as part of my self-care routine

B No, I don’t have time and when I try, I can’t empty my mind

C It’s on the list – I do it sometimes

 

  1. Do you enjoy your job?

A Yes, I’m happy in my work

B No, there are too many deadlines, or I’m always too busy

C Sometimes

 

  1. In your place of work, do you have a good team or support network?

A Yes, I have great friends and confidants in, and out of work

B No, I don’t feel I can voice how I am feeling in a work environment

C Yes, I have friends, but I don’t talk to them about work situations

 

  1. Who would you normally go to if you needed to talk?

A I have a great support network, anything goes

B I tend to manage my issues myself – I’m not really a sharer

C I have friends, but I’m selective in what I share

 

  1. What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

A I’m not afraid – I am truly happy

B I would leave my job/relationship – change my life

C I would travel more or take more time for myself

 

Now, count up how many A’s, B’s and C’s you ticked to reveal your results…

If you ticked mostly As, your life is balanced

Gold star, well done you. Your outlook and life seem pretty balanced, and your risk of burnout is likely minimal. Keep taking that time to yourself and ensuring that you get that switch-off time.

Try adding in some diversity to your activities and do something you’ve never done before, or an activity you’re curious about trying. Variety is the spice of life!

If you ticked mostly Bs, you’re experiencing burnout

You’re burnt to a crisp – or not far off! My recommendation to you is to take some time out and rest. Whether it’s deadlines, social calendar or family commitments, the endless demands on our time can wait, and the priority needs to be you. Accept that you must stop. Surrender into the burn and take time to work out what it is you really want to do.

If your job has become all-consuming, then this is a wake-up call for you to prioritise your health. Keep your to-do list manageable and short, thinking about what you can accomplish today. Having a huge to-do list can become overwhelming and set us up to fail, and make us feel that we never get anything done. You don’t need to throw all your responsibilities away, just break them down into bite-size, actionable steps.

Make sure you’re stepping away from screens an hour before bed and keep your phone out of the bedroom. You need some radical self-care, so be creative and carve out some me-time. 

You can achieve this by sitting in your car for five minutes before you get home or arrive at work, or by getting up five minutes earlier – it all adds up. By creating space for yourself, you will get more done. Slow down and hit factory reset.

If you ticked mostly Cs, be wary of burnout

Consider this your amber warning. I’d say you were on the fence – not quite at burnout, but also not living your best and fullest life. Who wants to be vanilla when we can be mint chocolate chip?

I would use this time to ask yourself some of those difficult questions you may be avoiding, perhaps using a journal to write down your answers. What would it take to have you living your best and fullest life? Make a list of the things that you enjoy, even if you’ve not done them in a while – these can be things from the past and present.

Now, make a list of things you’re curious about, things you’d maybe like to try but haven’t. What do you notice about these lists? Is there a common theme or thread? Start to add these activities into your daily life, especially the ones you’re curious about. You never know what gold you will uncover.

Physical symptoms of stress and anxiety

Ever find yourself inwardly tutting at the way a colleague sweats the small stuff, or frustrated by a loved one’s inability to step away from toxic situations? Stress is so apparent in others – you’ll no doubt have counselled someone in your life about making a positive change – but are you as good at spotting the physical symptoms in yourself? An estimated 70 to 90 percent of GP appointments address stress-related medical conditions, so it’s time to take stress and anxiety physical symptoms seriously.

Migraines

Living under the threat of migraines is itself stressful – scientists have indeed proven that an increase in stress can raise the number of tension headaches experienced. But what of that bigger event, a full migraine, which can include not only a chronic headache but also visual auras? Research into the link between stress and prevalence of migraine suggests it may actually be a moment of relaxation amid heightened stress that triggers the migraine itself. 

Researchers have noted a nearly fivefold increase in migraines in the six hours that followed a period of high stress. Evidence, if it were needed, that mitigating a stressful lifestyle with windows of calm is no substitute to addressing the long-term picture.

IBS

The links between IBS and stress are well established, with the IBS Network advocating a range of relaxation therapies – including yoga, reflexology, hypnotherapy and aromatherapy – to combat symptoms. In fact, according to the Network, many sufferers find their symptoms very accurately reflect their psychological state, with the bowels acting as a kind of ’emotional barometer’. The condition itself is notoriously hard to pinpoint, with sufferers experiencing a wide range of roughly grouped symptoms.

In the absence of a diagnostic test, considering the link between emotional state and eating is a good way forward. “If you eat in a stressed state, with ‘fight or flight’ mode switched on, then the food you’ve lovingly prepared is wasted as you won’t be in a state to digest all of those amazing nutrients,” notes health coach Olly Leicester

“A trick to turn on your parasympathetic nervous system during meals is to slow your breathing down before beginning to eat. Breathe in for four, hold for five, exhale for seven. Anyone can do this, and it’s an easy way to improve your digestion.”

Insomnia

Can’t switch off? Wide awake worrying? It can feel that sleeplessness is simply your busy brain trying to untangle a problem, but recent research from Japan suggests a more complex, unconscious effect. Researchers found our bodies deal more effectively with stress in the morning than in the evening, suggesting that those small stress symptoms we experience while winding down after a long day take a higher toll than those that hit in the early part of the day.

Eliminating even small stress triggers contributes to better ‘sleep hygiene’. A simple solution might be to keep all evening communications to stress-busting face-to-face interactions. “Humans are social creatures and we thrive when we interact with others,” says Soren Kenner, co-author of Offline: Free Your Mind From Smartphone and Social Media Stress. “What we get from social media is not real social interaction – taking a break from it gives you a chance to actually be sociable.”

Skin conditions caused by stress and anxiety

Psoriasis

An estimated 1.8 million people in the UK live with psoriasis – the skin condition which causes red, raised, flaky scales on skin – according to a survey of 1,000 UK adults conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Philips in June 2017. Yet while psoriasis is fairly common, with plaque being the most usual form, treatment options are limited. 

The itchy plaques can crack and bleed, causing pain and leaving sufferers battling a range of emotions – with new research from Philips revealing two in five claim the condition has lowered their self-esteem.

Psoriasis can develop at any age and has links to genetics, hormones and even stress, making it difficult for sufferers to pinpoint the exact triggers. As a result, they can end up battling with physical symptoms of the condition on and off for many years. Despite there being a range of different treatments for plaque psoriasis available, a lot of patients find themselves trapped in a treatment loop where they move from oily cream to oily cream and back again – leading them to feel in pain, frustrated, ignored and a low priority for their GP.

Eczema

“Stress can affect our bodies on what we call a multi-system level, which means it can affect any body system,” says GP and dermatology specialist Dr Jane Leonard. Jane points out that the effects of stress are complex, and can trigger a pre-existing condition or cause the start of new problems.

“Classic skin problems are eczema, acne and psoriasis. Unfortunately, there’s no direct link that proves why stress affects our skin on a cellular level, it’s just known as one of the multi-factual elements in conditions such as eczema.”

Hair loss due to stress and anxiety

Unlike alopecia areata, which develops when the immune system attacks the hair follicles, telogen effluvium is a condition which can be classed as stress-related hair loss. It’s a reactive type of hair loss, and it occurs when more hair sheds rather than grows. Unlike androgenic alopecia, which is a very slow, progressive reduction in hair volume, telogen effluvium is easier to spot, as you’ll notice more hairs coming out when you shampoo and style.

Hair is often the first part of us to suffer when something is amiss, so this hair loss can be triggered by poor diet and nutritional deficiencies, most commonly iron, vitamin B12, and vitamin D deficiency, hypo or hyperthyroid, as well as illness and stress.

Due to the nature of the hair growth cycle, it takes six to twelve weeks for hair to fall out, so if you’re losing more hair than normal, take a look at the last few months for a possible cause. Up to 50 percent of women also experience postpartum hair loss, which is an excessive daily loss of hair which occurs roughly three months after giving birth or stopping to breastfeed.

How to deal with stress and anxiety

If you’re feeling stressed, psychotherapist and hypnotherapist Nick Davies shares some quick fixes to relieve stress and anxiety, including a deep breathing technique:

  • As soon as you recognise the symptoms of a panic attack, make your body go as loose, limp and floppy as possible and relax every muscle from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes. Ignore every irrational thought and focus on this relaxation.
  • Instead of breathing in a way that expands your chest and lifts your shoulders, push your stomach out to breathe all the way down to the bottom of your lungs. Hold the breath, then dump the breath in a way that’s like letting out a loud sigh. Continue for 10 breaths.
  • Following the above breathing, focus on a single point on the wall until your peripheral vision begins to blur. Keeping your eyes open or closed, slowly repeat the following phrases five times each in your mind: ‘I am calm and relaxed’; ‘I am safe and well’; ‘I’ve got through this before and will again’.

If you want further stress and anxiety relief, life coach Camilla Sacre-Dallerup has her own strategy: “If you want help with stress and anxiety, you’re not alone. One of the most common things I hear from clients who come to me for stress-relieving hypnosis or a meditation class is that they feel overwhelmed and exhausted, and that they are looking to self-care, because they want to feel better. They’ve taken the first step, reaching out and admitting that they need support to help them cope better. Here’s a way of helping…”

Camilla Sacre-Dallerup’s stress reliever

To train your mind to support you in the best way possible, and reduce stress and anxiety, you must be two things: disciplined and persistent. Below is one of the most helpful relaxation techniques I know – you can easily use it throughout the day. It’s called STOP…

S is for ‘stop’ – literally, stop what you are doing for a moment. Wait to send that email and don’t pick up the phone.

T is for ‘take a breath’ – or take a few. This will allow you to create space between the situation and you. You’ll be able to respond later, rather than reacting immediately. Just let the breath flow in and out of your nose.

O is for ‘observe’ – allow yourself to simply observe what thoughts, feelings and emotions are present in your mind and know that they’re just that. They may be uncomfortable sometimes, but reminding yourself that they’re not facts and that they’ll pass helps ease the worry. Observe how you’re feeling. Name the emotion you are feeling, as this can help ease it.

P is for ‘proceed’ – when you’re ready, proceed with your day. Send the email or make yourself a comforting cuppa before you carry on with your daily routine.

This little exercise is powerful, and a great mindfulness tool to have up your sleeve. Use it whenever you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed. It works best when used as a prevention tool.

Sex positions to reduce stress and anxiety

Sex is a great stress-buster, but sometimes it can be hard to get into the mood when you’re feeling stressed or anxious.

If you’re feeling too tired for bedroom aerobics, psychosexual therapy expert Mike Lousada suggests the following moves that hit the spot with minimal effort: “Doggie style is always good for orgasm because it allows the penis to hit your G-spot easily,” he points out. “But, if you’re feeling really lazy, lie on one side (if your partner is right handed, lie on your left side). Allow your partner to make love to you from behind, spooning you, maximising body contact. From this angle, his penis will hit your G-spot while he penetrates you, and either you or he can stimulate your clitoris for extra pleasure.”

Meditation for stress and anxiety

In a world where we face pressure in our everyday lives (meeting deadlines, while agreeing to after-work drinks and committing to three gym sessions a week, anyone?), stress and burnout can be a real threat to our wellbeing. Aside from impacting our relationships with loved ones, modern day burnout can lead to stress-related sickness, costing UK employers £5 million a year, according to the Health & Safety Executive. Take a few minutes to relax, breathe, and meditate each day with this easy exercise, and you could recharge in no time…

Gratitude meditation session

Sit in a comfortable position; either sitting on the floor or in a chair, with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed. Close your eyes, focusing on the present moment, and start by taking in deep breaths, bringing the air down to your abdomen. Feel your abdomen expand with every breath in and contract with every breath out. Slowly bring your mind to someone or something that you are grateful for.

No matter what, there is always something in our life that we can feel grateful for. Focus on the deep feeling of gratitude, notice how it makes you feel, stay with this feeling.

Allow the feeling of gratitude to grow inside you with every breath. Feel how your heart responds, wanting to give something back. Let this feeling of love permeate your whole body.

Herbal remedies for stress and anxiety

Aromatherapy is often used to relax us, and could be great for decreasing stress. This practice involves the therapeutic use of plant essential oils – pure ‘essences’ that are extracted from flowers, berries, grasses, roots, seeds, bark, fruits and herbs. Each essential oil contains special properties that can be used to enhance health and wellbeing, and an optimum way for the body to absorb and benefit from these oils is through a relaxing aromatherapy massage.

Oils to try include lavender, which can help to calm the nervous system. It can also lower blood pressure, heart rate and skin temperature. Neroli is often referred to as the ‘rescue remedy’ of essential oils, helping to ease anxiety and stress along with bergamot and lemon balm.

Crystals for anxiety and stress

You may not be the spiritual sort, but understanding the energy of individual crystals can help generate those all-important good vibes, and get rid of negative energies. Crystals that help to express positivity and serenity work well in your living room, or communal space. If you’re a first-time crystal buyer, then go for selenite, which is good for cleansing and bringing light into the home, or apophyllite, which is best for soothing nerves.

Amethyst also works as a stress-relieving, healing crystal, so it can help soothe frazzled nerves and mild anxiety – ideal for teenagers who are feeling the stress of impending exams. But, the crystal you can add to any room of the house? Rose quartz: it’s a good all-rounder, as its properties encourage self-love and self-care.

Medication for anxiety and stress

If you are still finding it hard coping with a mental health condition such as stress and anxiety, go to your GP and ask about medication. We wouldn’t recommend seeking over-the-counter medicine for anxiety and stress, as this type of treatment could cause unwanted side effects, and disrupt the effects of any other medication you’re using. Your GP might prescribe medication for stress and anxiety; tablets such as beta blockers are commonly prescribed for anxiety.

Another option that may be offered to you is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). According to the NHS, CBT is a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave. It’s most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression, but can be useful for other mental and physical health problems.

Doctors are now more aware than ever of the benefits of nature and physical activity for someone suffering with a mental disorder. Known as ‘green prescriptions’, GPs are now recommending patients try gardening and outdoor exercises alongside conventional treatment.

 Always seek a professional’s advice when getting medical help for your mental health.

Stress and anxiety at work

“Many of us resolve to leave work on time, or make sure that we don’t take work home with us,” points out Jill Mead of mental health in the workplace advocates TalkOut. “But in reality, depending on what’s going on at work, that can actually make you feel more anxious.”

Instead, Jill recommends acknowledging your emotions. “Recognise that you feel overwhelmed with work-related stress. Actually be a bit kinder to yourself, and start talking to people about those feelings.”

Remember that you can always go to your GP for help and treatment, and try talking to appropriate colleagues at work, too. You can ask for a doctor’s note for stress and anxiety, and ask for sick leave at work. If you need a short time away, remember to ask for a sick note from your doctor when you return to work.

Managing stress working from home

The 2020 Wellness Index found that 11 percent of all respondents felt extremely stressed on a regular basis, with a further 25 percent feeling an unhealthy amount of stress. So, what can people do to manage their stress and anxiety levels whilst working from home?

Regular exercise can certainly help with this, but here are five additional tips for those feeling exceedingly stressed when working from home:

  • To-do lists can help with breaking down what may feel like a mammoth task ahead. If each day is digested into easier chunks it will instantly feel more manageable. You’ll also gain a sense of satisfaction when crossing off jobs that are complete.
  • Separate personal and working spaces. Even though the comfort of one’s bed may feel torturous to leave, the temptation to open a laptop from the warmth of a duvet should be resisted. Instead try and treat your days as you would when going to the office. Getting up, showered and dressed are the obvious recommendations (goodbye, pyjamas!).
  • Go for a walk before starting the working day: treat this as a sort of ‘commute’ to clear your head. Ideally, people will return to a dedicated working station, thus helping separate what is ‘home’ from what is ‘work’.
  • Keep talking! Just because people aren’t physically together it doesn’t mean the support of colleagues has disappeared. Video calls can be especially helpful in these situations, creating more of an authentic and real life-like exchange.

Take regular breaks; whether it’s a walk, yoga, or even making a cup of tea, breaks are essential to ensure mental wellbeing and stress management.

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