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How to tackle stress and boost mental health

Stressed much? Ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, we explore how to navigate self-care and manage your emotional wellbeing by easing lockdown anxiety. Over to the experts...

Mental Health Awareness

Global pandemic. Climate crisis. Political polarisation. Prepping that all-important Zoom presentation at the kitchen table while your kids scream at each other from the hallway. It’s not exactly looking rosy out there right now, is it? But according to Mind, a leading mental health charity in England and Wales, managing your stress levels is all about being a bit kinder to yourself and spotting the signs early. Here, we chat with Hannah Murphy, a psychologist at North Essex IAPT Services, to explore common symptoms of stress – and how to manage them before you reach breaking point.

We’re all familiar with that sense of tightness that takes hold when stress levels rise. What other signs should we be looking out for?

‘Whenever we’re feeling anxious, our body enters fight or flight mode, which is when we physically perceive the stressor – whether that be anxiety around COVID, lockdown, work or family life – as a danger to us. Our body recognises stress as a physical threat and wants to protect us, so we might notice our heart rate rising, our breath quickening, our muscles tightening and our immune system degrading, resulting in more colds and flu-like symptoms. These can all be physical indicators that we’re feeling overwhelmed.’

What about emotional symptoms? 

‘Alongside these physical symptoms, we’ll often feel agitated and become increasingly snappy with people, too. A lack of motivation is also common – particularly at the moment when we’re all naturally seeing less of our friends and family. Not having the same amount of connection with loved ones can make us feel low or a bit lonely – we may also feel nervous or on edge a lot of the time. These are all natural, normal reactions to stress, but what’s important here is that you identify them early so that you can tackle them before they lead to any long-term mental health problems later down the line.’

bucket analogy mental health

How do we address stress once we’ve recognised the signs?

‘I like to use the Stress Bucket analogy for this, as it’s a good way to visualise the problem and overcome your inner stress levels. First, imagine that you’re holding a bucket and that all the sources of stress in your life – be that work, COVID, or a family situation – are dripping into the bucket. The droplets can represent anything that’s causing you anxiety, including lifestyle changes such as moving house or changing jobs. Once you’ve visualised your bucket, it’s important to acknowledge that, for the most part, we can’t control what drops into the bucket. However, you can manage how full your bucket gets – and we do that by poking holes into the bottom with activities that relieve your stress levels. ‘Holes’ can be created by going for a walk every day, for example, or reading a book – whatever makes you feel less stressed.’

Are there steps that we can take to help prevent stress building up in the first place?

‘One of the most important things to remember when dealing with stress is that your everyday routine can play a huge part. Eating a healthy, balanced diet can really help your body and brain function to deal with stressors before they become overwhelming, so stay hydrated and feed your body the nutrients it needs. I also recommend checking your daily caffeine intake. We know that caffeine can increase your heart rate, so if you’re sensitive to it, cut all caffeine out after lunch time and switch to decaf instead. In turn, this will aid your sleeping patterns too, which can also impact on our ability to deal with stress.’

What are your top tips for boosting mental health right now?

‘Staying connected. One of the biggest impacts [of lockdown on mental health] has been the loss of connectivity with loved ones, so if you’re able to use online platforms such as Zoom or WhatsApp, make sure you regularly catch up with people and check in on them. Why not start an online film club with your mates or a Friday night quiz with your work colleagues, for example? It’s so important to stay connected, so get creative! I’d also recommend scheduling your day if your usual routine has been disrupted [since lockdown]. Try to schedule in exercise; a pleasurable activity – whether that be having a bath in the evening or time to read a book; and something that gives you a sense of achievement. It doesn’t have to be a big thing – maybe it’s finishing off a bit of DIY or gardening. The important thing here is that, at the end of the day, you’ve ticked something off your to-do list and you feel a sense of achievement.’

Can the onslaught of negative news affect us, too?

‘Absolutely – managing your media intake is vital, especially if you’re someone who finds themselves constantly scrolling through social media or news channels looking for updates. We know from scientific studies that consuming too much media can increase anxiety, so limit your intake to one news bulletin a day – and make sure it’s from a reputable source, such as the 10pm news or WHO.’

Any last words of wisdom?

‘Be kind to yourself! It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the moment, so don’t worry if you can’t action everything at once. Start with one thing that you think might help you feel better and go from there. Small things – like carving out time for a 10-minute walk in the morning – can really help to set us up for the day and result in us managing stress more effectively.’

Want more advice? North Essex IAPT Services provide a range of innovative digital, video and telephone-based talking therapies that are accessible remotely. See northessexiapt.nhs.uk for details. Alternatively, head to mind.org.uk for further information on how to tackle anxiety and stress.

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