It is time to bring mental wellbeing to the forefront of our thinking and put conversations about mental health on the table, to stay!

The world is increasingly opening up to and understanding of mental health and this year the Mental Health Foundation have focussed on stress; a problem which effects almost three quarters of us.1

I am stressed, does this mean I have a mental health problem?

In short, no. But as is often the case, things aren’t quite as simple as they initially seem. Stress in itself can be a normal part of life, and you may hear people saying ‘I work better under stress’. For that individual and in the immediate term this may well be the case, however prolonged periods of stress can be extremely overwhelming and very quickly we find ourselves with a cumulative stress effect; this can have significant effects on our body and emotional state.

Stress can cause mental health problems, and make existing ones worse.2 Stress can be a major contributor to depression and anxiety, as well as triggering self-harming behaviour or suicide. There is also good evidence to show that stress can lead to hypertension, cardiovascular disease and stroke. For those with an existing mental health problem; this in itself can be a source of stress and so its easy to see how the vicious cycle starts.

Is it all in my head?

Most definitely not. In response to stress, we experience effects on all of our body’s systems. Firstly, our nervous system generates a ‘fight or flight’ response which leads to an increased release of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause our heart to beat faster and blood pressure to increase, our breathing rate to increase, our digestive process to change and our muscles to tense.3 If these processes are sustained over a period, this causes a long-term drain on the body. Knowing this, it starts to make sense that experiencing prolonged or repetitive stress has dramatic impact on our mental and physical wellbeing.

What are the signs that I am stressed?

As individuals we all experience stress differently in different situations. Some people can tell straight away that they feel stressed, whilst others may not recognise this.

Below are some of the common signs of stress that you may feel:4

  • Over-burdened or overwhelmed
  • Tiredness all the time
  • Anxious or nervous
  • Heart racing or nauseated or headaches
  • Depressed or sad
  • Lack of enjoyment in life
  • Irritable or wound up
  • Inability to switch off
  • Sense of dread
  • Lonely

For people who have difficulty recognising these, it may be easier to see how your behaviour has been affected by stress.5

Below are some behavioural changes you may have noticed:

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Restless or fidgeting behaviours such as biting nails or picking at your skin
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
  • Snapping at people or loss of patience
  • Feeling tearful or crying
  • Smoking or drinking more than usual
  • Panic attacks or fast breathing
  • Grinding your teeth or tensing of your muscles

What is causing me to be stressed?

The first thing that is important to say is that a situation that may cause you a lot of stress may not bother another person and vice-versa; we are all different. The amount of stress we experience depends on our perception of the situation (which varies with our mood state and past experiences) and our emotional resilience to stressful situations. Stress can be caused by one big event or by a cumulative effect of many smaller challenges.5

Broadly speaking, the common causes are often grouped as:

  • Personal issues (bereavement, long-term health issues, pregnancy, organisational)
  • Employment or study (job loss, unemployment, high work load, exams)
  • Relationships (divorce, marriage or civil partnership, sibling)
  • Housing (neighbour problems, moving home, unsuitable housing)
  • Money (debt, benefits, poverty, bills)

I am stressed, what should I do now?

  1. Acknowledge your stress: make a connection between the way you are feeling and your behaviours.
  2. Identify the causes or triggers: Take time to reflect on issues that come up regularly, one-off stressors or on-going stressful events. Generally, there are some causes that will have a practical solution, others that will improve with time and those that you have no control over.
  3. Accept the things you can’t change: This is a difficult, but there are likely to be some things happening which you cannot change, and your time is better spent on the other issues.

How can I protect myself against the effects of stress?

You need to take steps to look after your wellbeing. This will allow you to better deal with pressure and will reduce the impact that stress has on your life when you go through difficult periods in life.

Take time-out:2

  • Find a balance between your responsibility to others and to yourself.
  • Take a break and get a change of scenery.
  • Make time for your friends and your hobbies.

Look after your physical health:

  • Eat healthily – what you eat can make a big difference to how you feel; protect your feelings of wellbeing by providing your body with enough energy.
  • Be more physically active – even light exercise is very effective at reducing stress and will protect the body against the long-term effects of stress.6
  • Be aware of drinking alcohol and smoking – although both may initially feel helpful they can often make the problem worse.7

Get good sleep:

  • It is common for your sleep to be affected by stress. Allow yourself adequate time to sleep, optimise the sleeping environment and practice good sleep hygiene. Being well rested better prepares us to handle pressure.

Relaxation techniques:

  • Mindfulness is a practice that anyone can do which involves raising our awareness of the thoughts and feelings we are experiencing during that moment allowing us to not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us. Evidence supports its use for stress, anxiety, low mood and other related problems and this can be practiced regularly.8,9
  • Take time to relax – take a bath, walk the dog, listen to your favourite music.

Don’t be too critical of yourself:

  • Try to keep things in perspective – bad days can happen to everybody, think what advice you would give to a friend; be supportive to yourself.
  • Reward your achievements – take a few minutes to think or write down the things you have done well and reward yourself for these.

Use your support network:

  • Friends and family – just telling the people you are close to can make a big difference.

What can my employers do to help?

Employers can use Mental Health Awareness Week to start up a conversation about their staff’s wellbeing. Employers are starting to take much more interest in the wellbeing of their employees as healthy and happy staff are productive staff.
Wellspace have developed an app and portal that help employees manage stress in the workplace. A company or an employee could set up a Stress Awareness Space where staff are able to share their thoughts and feelings when stressed.


1. Mental Health Statistics: Stress. Mental Health Foundation. 2018. Accessed via on 15/5/18.
2. How to manage stress. MIND. Accessed via on 15/5/18.
3. Tovian S, Thorn B et al. Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association. Accessed via on 15/5/18
4.How to manage and reduce stress. Mental Health Foundation. Accessed via on 15/5/18.
5. Bressert, S. The Impact of Stress. Psych Central. 2016. Accessed via on 15/5/18.
6. Penedo, F.J. & Dahn, J.R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 18 (2), 189–193.
7. Royal College of Psychiatrists (2010). “Alcohol and Depression.” Accessed via… On 15/5/18.
8. Getting Started with Mindfulness. Mindful. Accessed via on 15/5/18.
9. Greeson, J.M. (2008). Mindfulness research update: 2008. Complementary Health Practice Review 14,10–8.
10. Stress Awareness Space. MIND. Accessed via on 15/5/18.