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Stress and its impact on physical and mental health

stressed woman holding her head

Leading up to Stress Awareness month, we have shared important information on the signs of stress, its impact on mental health and physical wellbeing as well as useful ways to manage symptoms. 

A study into the mental health impact of the Covid-19 pandemic found that around 57% of people living in the UK reported symptoms of chronic stress and anxiety. Most experienced feeling stressed about factors surrounding their health, work, finances, and loss of loved ones.

“After enduring a truly challenging year, it is even more important to understand the implications that stress can cause on our mental and physical health. Whilst people respond to stress in different ways and with no single definition of what stress is, there are common signs people should be aware of.”

Dan Knowles, CEO at Oxfordshire Mind

It is important to remember that stress is something most individuals have experienced at one point in their lives. It is a natural emotion that can be caused by the physical and mental pressures of everyday life situations. Some of these situations are unavoidable, causing people to feel trapped, overwhelmed and constantly anxious.

Symptoms of Stress

Most people are usually able to tell when they are under stress right away, but for others, symptoms are not always obvious and can present long-term health issues if not properly managed.

Physical symptoms of stress include headaches, chest pains, high blood pressure, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, blurred vision and breathing problems.

“It feels like the world is closing in on me, I can’t breathe and I’m running out of time”.

Oxfordshire Mind Service User

Mental health symptoms of stress include feeling irritable, a lack of motivation, unable to find joy, having racing thoughts, feeling restless and depressed.

“My head is tight, and all my thoughts are whizzing round in different directions and I can’t catch them”.

Oxfordshire Mind Service User

Managing Stress

Here are some steps that individuals can take to try and cope with stress and manage symptoms. Remember that different things work for different people and those struggling should only try things they feel comfortable with.

Identifying triggers:

Firstly, it is crucial to identify what triggers that contribute to your stress so that you can anticipate problems and prepare yourself with ways to cope. Triggers can include issues that arise regularly such as deadlines at work, caring for family members or financial pressures of paying bills etc. They might also include one off events, such as moving to a new house, taking exams, or attending appointments.

Once you have identified your triggers, make a list of the ones that present the most pressure and think of practical ways you can resolve or reduce the impact is has on you. It is important to accept that not everything can be avoided but there are ways of managing your feelings to help you focus your time and energy more productively.

Coping with Stress:

Taking the right steps to look after yourself and your wellbeing can be tricky as it takes time to learn and requires practice. Trying different techniques will support you to find the right ones for you to ultimately develop your emotional resilience and maintain a stable mental wellbeing. 

Take control of your time and consider making lifestyle changes surrounding your job, social life and interest or hobbies. Finding a suitable lifestyle balance is not easy but can help spread the weight of pressure you experience and allow you time to unwind. Improving your diet and limiting caffeine and alcohol intake are also powerful ways of supporting your body’s reaction to stress.

The fastest way you can relieve stress in the moment is by using breathing techniques. One you can try is the Box breathing method which is helpful during extreme stress. Simply practice the following process: inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, wait at the very end of the exhale for a count of 4, and repeat. This is a slow breathing exercise that builds up levels of CO2 in the blood to produce feelings of calmness throughout the body.

Treatment for Stress:

For those experiencing prolonged chronic stress, there are a range of treatments available through the National Health Service (NHS) that can be accessed through a General Practitioner (GP).

Talking treatments include talking with a trained professional that can help you learn to deal with stress and become more aware of your thoughts and feelings. Common talking treatments include Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which helps you identify your thought patterns, identify trigger points, and create positive actions to overcome these issues.

Supporting others:

If someone you are close to is feeling stressed, you may not be able to change the situation they are in but there are things you can do to support them.

Encourage them to reflect on how they are feeling and the reasons to why they might be stressed. People might not always notice their own physical symptoms or changes in behaviour. If you have noticed that someone seems particularly busy, anxious or unwell, you could gently let them know, and ask how you can help.

Listen to how they are feeling and give them the chance to talk openly. Talking to someone they trust could help them feel calmer and more able to move forward. Just knowing they have someone there for them could help lift weight off their mind.

If you are concerned with how you or someone you know are feeling and are finding it difficult to cope, please contact Oxfordshire Mind’s information line to speak to a wellbeing worker on 01865 247788 (Monday to Thursday, 9:30am to 4:30pm).

Alternatively, if you do not feel like talking on the phone, you can text into Oxfordshire Mind with your questions around mental health and wellbeing using the following number 07451 277973 (Monday to Thursday, 9am to 4pm).

The Safe Haven service has remained open during the Covid-19 crisis and provides short term, out of hours support (over the phone and face to face) to adults experiencing mental health crisis in Oxfordshire. You can self-refer by calling Oxford Safe Haven on 01865 903 037 or Banbury Safe Haven on 01295 270004 (Friday to Monday, 5pm to 9pm).