Eight proven ways to manage stress and beat feeling overwhelmed

9th November 2021
 minute read

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Feeling stressed? It’s an incredibly common issue but thankfully, there are various short and long term solutions for dealing with it...

Stressed woman working from home whilst looking after children

Frazzled? Burned out? At your limit? Or do you just always feel a little bit wired, as if you’re never able to fully relax? If so, then you are far from alone.

Because from distraction to irritability to sleepless nights, many of us are more stressed out than ever before. In fact, a 2018 study showed that three out of four people in the UK felt overwhelmed by stress — and this was before the pandemic. 

Sometimes there can be a sense that there’s just not enough time for everything, yet we’re also made to feel guilty for even feeling this way (take, for instance, the endless cultural messages around ‘boosting productivity’ and ‘going the extra mile)’. Throw Covid and lockdown into the mix and you could be forgiven for feeling more than a little bit overwhelmed these days. In fact, stress has become so normalised that you may even have learned to expect it — maybe it’s just an unavoidable part of contemporary life?

While it’s certainly true that a certain amount of stress is natural and to be expected (and in some respects, even healthy and helpful) you don’t have to accept feeling worn out or burned out as the norm. In fact, there are a wide range of stress management strategies that you can use to feel calmer, more centered and less overwhelmed day by day. And by doing so, you might find that your relationships with life’s stressors change for the better too.

First of all though, let’s define what stress actually is.

What is stress?

Stress is a physical reaction to being under pressure that can also impact on us mentally and emotionally. It happens when our fight-flight system switches on to help us deal with a ‘stressor’, whether that is a dangerous situation or a work deadline. It’s not necessarily a bad thing  — in fact, we seem to need a certain amount of it. This is because stress can drive our survival instincts, keeping us motivated to get through each day. 

It only becomes a problem when you have too much stress at too high a level, long term. This is what we mean when we say that someone is ‘suffering from stress’. When a person has long-term (chronic) stress, continued activation of the fight-flight response causes wear and tear on the body. Physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms can also develop, including anxiety, depression and fatigue. Mood, behaviour and relationships can also be impacted, sometimes quite seriously. People who are highly stressed may even experience suicidal thoughts

12 key signs of stress

Sometimes, we can be stressed out without knowing it — it can creep up on us, become normalised, just feel like our way of being in the world. But if you think you might be facing this issue, then there are a few signs that you can look out for:

  • Feeling exhausted.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
  • Feeling angry or irritable.
  • Sleep problems or teeth grinding in the night.
  • Chest pains or a racing heart.
  • Dizziness or shaking.
  • Feeling sad, tearful or depressed.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Aches, pains of headaches.
  • Getting ill more often.
  • Loss of sex drive.

4 short term ways to manage stress

Thankfully, there are both short and long term approaches for coping with stress. Here are a few ways to get immediate results and bring yourself into a greater state of calm:

1. Learn quick stress relief techniques (Meditation and PMR)

Studies have shown that just 10 minutes of meditation a day can reduce stress. This is because the practice can put you in a deep state of relaxation, focusing your attention and calming the stream of jumbled thoughts that can crowd your mind. 

There are so many styles of meditation to choose from that it can be a little bewildering. So a good starting point would be to download an meditation app or attend a class, so that you can learn a few simple step by step techniques for shifting into a more centered state

Another good stress relief technique (that you can even add to a daily meditation practice) is Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) — tightening and releasing the muscles in different parts of your body in turn. And like meditation, it is recommended that you do it for around 10 minutes a day.

2. Head out for a walk, run or gym session

Physical exercise has various stress busting benefits. For starters, it’s a way to give yourself space from any ‘stress triggers’ in your environment, for instance, work emails or that growing pile of laundry. Secondly, physical exercise can pump up your endorphins — the brain's feel-good neurotransmitters — giving you a quick mood boost. Thirdly, if stress is causing you to feel pent up anger or frustration, then a run, vigorous walk or gym session can be a great way to work off these feelings.

Of course, when you’re stressed, motivating yourself to go to the gym to pound on the treadmill for an hour can sometimes feel like too much. But if you can even manage a 10-minute stroll around the park, you might find yourself returning to a calmer, more focused state.

3. Write in a journal

Self-expression can be a powerful antidote to stress. Sometimes, just putting things down on paper can help to sort out your thoughts and feelings. And while there is nothing stopping you from grabbing a notebook and pen any time you feel stressed, it can be useful to turn this into a daily habit. In fact, the best times to journal are often in the morning (before facing the challenges of the day), or at night (as a way to unwind before bed).

By expressing your thoughts and worries on the page, journalling can be a cathartic way to vent about the things that are frustrating you and even find solutions to problems. In the words of Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way and advocate for journalling, ‘Each morning, as we face the page, we meet ourselves. The pages give us a place to vent and a place to dream. They are intended for no eyes but our own.’

4. Get creative

Whether it’s drawing, crocheting, knitting, scrapbooking or painting crockery, arts and crafts can be fantastic great stress busters. This is because when you are fully immersed in a creative activity, you enter into what’s known as a ‘flow state’ (basically, a state of complete immersion). In fact, flow state actually releases a cocktail of soothing and mood boosting hormones, including dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. 

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, ‘The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times — although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.’

And of course, you don’t need to be a skilled artist to express yourself or enter into a flow state — it’s not about producing a perfect end product or something amazing to show your friends. Instead, it’s about taking time away from it all to immerse yourself in a creative activity. For instance, adult coloring books are a popular stress release method that are accessible to just about anyone.

4 long term ways to manage stress

1. Aim for a better work-life balance

Between commuting, overtime, targets, deadlines, internal politics and even job insecurity, work can often be a major source of overwhelm. In fact, a recent study showed that a staggering 21.6 million working days were lost in the UK due to stress, depression or anxiety alone.

And while you might not be able to wave a magic wand and banish all of your workplace stressors overnight, there might be various things you can do to reduce them. For instance, depending on your job, you could request a ‘hybrid’ working model where you spend half your week in the office and half at home. You could also aim to set healthy boundaries around your working hours, only doing overtime and working weekends where it is absolutely necessary. And if you are really struggling to cope, then consider speaking to your workplace about what support systems could be put in place for you.

2. Switch off social media

In a single day, life can come at us in many directions, from money worries to relationships conflicts to health concerns. At these times it can be really tempting to escape into Facebook, Instagram or TikTok for a while. And up to a point, this might even be beneficial.

The problems start when social media adds to the overwhelming chatter in our brain and actually adds to our stress. For instance, have you ever watched a political argument unfold on your newsfeed and found yourself getting tensed up? Or had your phone constantly beep with social alerts while you’re trying to relax? In both cases social media can be adding to your stress in ways that you might not even notice.

And while we often think of these apps as tools for connection, they can actually make us feel even more lonely. At some point, most of us realise that getting 100 ‘Likes’ for an Instagram post doesn’t replace a genuine moment of human bonding. What’s more, seeing a constant stream of highly filtered ‘perfect life’ images can also increase our feelings of inadequacy and discontentment.

That is why switching off social media, even in the short term, could make a difference to your stress levels. By reducing the chatter and noise, you have more of an opportunity to relax, focus on other things and enter the kind of flow states that bring greater calm. And while you don’t have to delete social media altogether, you could aim to limit how much you use them and prioritise time for self-care instead.

3. Build a support network

Many studies have shown that having good social support can help to reduce stress levels. And while this might sound obvious, it can be all too easy to isolate ourselves when we are feeling anxious, sad or overwhelmed. Sometimes, socialising is the very last thing we want to do. We may even feel that there is ‘no point’ in talking about our stress.

Yet it’s important to reach out to people, as not having a support system can actually increase our sense of overwhelm. And there’s actually a science behind this, as loneliness and isolation can increase the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our systems. Conversely, bonding with others through talking or hugging can release the stress lowering hormone, oxytocin. So don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to trusted friends — it might help you to see things more clearly and feel reassured that you’re not alone. And if you feel you don’t have anyone to connect with, look into support groups or social activities in your area.

4. Find a therapist

Just about any kind of therapy can help with stress, depending on the causes of the issue.

For instance, Mindfulness can help you to develop a set of practices that dial down your body's response to stress. We can often be caught up in worries about the future, but this approach can help you to turn down the mental chatter and return home to the present moment. Mindfulness therapy helps you to become more conscious of how you react to things and will help you to learn to steer your responses. Studies have shown that just eight weeks of mindfulness practice can shrink the parts linked to stress, depression and addictive behaviours.

Similarly, CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) can help to become more aware of how your thoughts and behaviours are affecting your stress levels. CBT has a focus on developing coping skills for dealing with life’s challenges, meaning you can work with a therapist in building your own ‘stress management toolkit’ to see you through each day. A CBT therapist can also help you to examine the rules you live by that can cause stress, for instance, ‘I must always be productive’ and the deeper embedded beliefs that might be driving them, such as ‘I’m inadequate’.

We’ve already looked at how creative activities can help to relieve stress but if you wanted to take that a step further, then why not work with an Art Therapist? Art Therapy uses a range of tools — including painting, drawing, pottery, sculpture and collage — to help bring your focus into the present, temporarily letting go of the past and future. And by transforming stressful emotions, thoughts and experiences into art, you can let go of tension and also get to know yourself better.

A certain amount of stress is normal and sometimes even to be expected. Yet it is also possible to manage it, both in the long and the short term. Whether it is developing a daily meditation practice, chatting to loved ones regularly or changing your working pattern, gradual lifestyle shifts can make a difference.

But sometimes, the first step of stress management is acknowledging that you deserve to feel relaxed and happy, that feeling constantly pressured doesn’t have to be the natural way of things. You don’t always need to be productive, you don’t always have to go the extra mile and you don’t always have to put yourself last. There is no shame in admitting that you’re feeling overwhelmed, then making whatever changes you can to bring yourself into a calmer place.

Dealing with stress, anxiety or burnout? Therapy can help you to find a way through and develop strategies for managing it. Connect to a world-class MTA therapist today for an in-person, video or live chat appointment.

Eight proven ways to manage stress and beat feeling overwhelmed
Clinical Director
Lumo Health team
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