Health

Stress: How to control it

Relaxation to manage stress Image copyright Science Photo Library

What practical steps can you take to reduce stress ? Is it good to vent your feelings? How can I reduce stress levels?

You've been asking us questions about the best ways to manage stress, after recent research discovered how it could lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Stress is part of all our lives. Often it's what makes us get up in the morning.

"I'm stressed," is a phrase often used to describe the feeling of having too much to do, a deadline to meet or a big life change to prepare for.

It can be triggered by a busy job, the death of a loved one or money problems - or even following a happy event such as the birth of a baby.

It's something we all experience at some point - and it can make us feel irritable, tired and unable to relax.

But when stress becomes a constant, overwhelming presence that affects how our bodies work and how we function, then it's time to take steps to manage it.

How to recognise stress?

  • problems sleeping or excessive tiredness
  • lack of appetite or eating too much
  • feeling sad, irritable and tearful
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • losing temper easily
  • headaches and general pains

The first step is to recognise that you are stressed and then decide you need to make changes to your life to control your feelings.

NHS Choices says there are many things you can do to manage stress effectively, "such as learning how to relax, taking regular exercise and adopting good time-management techniques".

The Royal College of Psychiatrists recommends talking to friends and family about your feelings, breaking down problems into smaller parts that are easier to deal with and looking after your physical health.

Image copyright Science Photo Library

It says: "Simple things like making time to eat regular meals helps avoid low sugar levels caused by skipping meals, which can affect how you feel mentally as well as physically."

And it's a good idea to keep tabs on what you are drinking and how much you are smoking because these can get out of control when stress kicks in.

Experts say making time for exercise is crucial - because it's a way of venting emotions that have been internalised and producing hormones called endorphins that make you feel good.

Keeping a diary of stressful feelings and noting down the triggers is also a positive step.

Of course, no one method works for everyone.

'Explore your stress'

If you suffer from chronic stress and don't have a clue how to start managing it, then asking your GP for help or going to see a counsellor is advisable.

In the workplace, counselling is a particularly good way of getting to grips with the underlying issues.

Andrew Kinder, a senior counsellor with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says he takes the time to listen to people and helps them "explore their situation and work out what is going to help solve the issue causing stress".

But this can take time, he says.

"If they are ready to change and have a clear focus, it can be a quick process lasting one or two sessions, but for others it takes a lot longer.

"It depends on whether they have given themselves permission to make some changes and are able to face up to it."

Image copyright Science Photo Library

If you're looking for more structured approaches to dealing with stress, then a mindfulness course or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be the answer.

Mindfulness is all about making us more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that we are better able to cope with them.

The Mental Health Foundation, which runs an online mindfulness-based stress reduction course, says the idea is that people "step out of autopilot" in their daily lives.

"For example, when brushing your teeth or putting on make-up in the morning, bring your attention intensely into that moment, paying attention to each brush stroke and how it feels," a representative said.

"Doing this can make us conscious of how often we worry about the past or fret about the future."

Positive attitude

Research into the effectiveness of online mindfulness courses, in a BMJ Open study, found that a course of 10 sessions over four weeks "significantly decreased" stress, anxiety and depression.

However, Andrew Kinder points out that learning to be mindful is only part of the process.

"You also need to use problem-solving techniques and a positive mental attitude to solve the problem causing the stress, for example a debt problem," he says.

CBT is a way of talking about how you view yourself.

It can help to change how you think and what you do, which can help you feel better.

With about 488,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2015-16, facing up to the problem is an issue for employers and employees up and down the UK.

But stress can also be the result of lots of little things going wrong in life.

The key is to talk to someone about it and seek professional help if you have felt down, hopeless and been unable to enjoy anything for more than two weeks.

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