Managing everyday stress

Stress is often described as feeling overloaded, wound-up, tense and worried, and occurs when we face a situation we feel we can’t cope with. While stress is usually referred to as a negative experience, not all stress is bad. Some stress can be helpful, motivating us to get a task finished, or spurring us to perform well.

However, if stress is ongoing or the stress response continues over a long period, the effects of stress can impact negatively on our physical and mental health.

When we face a stressful event, our bodies respond by activating the nervous system and releasing hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones cause physical changes in the body, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. Our breathing and metabolism speeds up. Our pupils dilate and we sweat more. These physical changes help us to react quickly and effectively to get us through stressful situations. These are the usual signs of acute stress.

Here are some tips to help you manage everyday stress:

Recognise signs of stress

Signs of stress vary from person to person, but recognising your own personal signs can help you take positive steps.

Signs of stress might include tensing your jaw, grinding your teeth, getting headaches, having problems sleeping, or feeling irritable or short tempered.

Identify causes of stress

It is easy to plough on, day after day, without taking a step back and identifying what is causing you stress. Identifying stressors is the first step to doing something about them.

Use problem-solving

Sometimes the situation causing the stress can be changed, for example, by getting an extension on a school assignment or work deadline, changing jobs, or sharing the workload with a colleague. Problem-solving involves identifying the problem causing stress, writing down a list of solutions, working through the pros and cons of each, selecting the best one and trying it out, and evaluating its success.

Change the way you talk to yourself

When we are stressed we sometimes say negative or self-defeating things to ourselves over and over. Unhelpful self-talk might include things like, “I can’t cope”, “I’m too busy to deal with all this”, or “I’ll never get this done”. Negative self-talk can make it more difficult to manage stress.

Notice your self-talk and work on using helpful, soothing and calming self-talk, such as, “I am coping well given what I have on my plate”, “Relax, this stressful time will pass”, or “This is a stressful situation, but what is one thing I can do to help me get through this?”

Keep things in perspective

When we are stressed, it is easy to see things as worse than they really are. Rather than imagining the worst-case scenario and then worrying about it, ask yourself: Am I overestimating the likelihood of a negative outcome? Am I overestimating how bad the consequences will be? Am I underestimating my ability to cope?

Rehearse tackling stressful situations

If there is a stressful event coming up, prepare for it. Work on developing the skills you need to tackle the situation as well as you can. Rehearse the situation before you have to perform on the actual day. This might include imagining yourself successfully handling the situation, or setting up real-life rehearsals.

Practise relaxation

Practising relaxation (such as autonomic relaxation, meditation or mindfulness) has been found to decrease stress. Meditation and relaxation techniques, if practised regularly, can help reduce stress levels by allowing the body and nervous system to settle and readjust to a calm state.

Organise your time

Research suggests that good time management can decrease stress, increase work and life satisfaction, and improve health.

Time management strategies include setting goals, prioritising and planning tasks, writing to-do lists, using a diary, setting reminders for jobs that need doing, delegating tasks that can be done by others, and grouping similar jobs that can be done together.

Look after your health

Stress can affect your immune system and make you more vulnerable to a range of health problems. Keeping yourself fit and healthy by adopting healthy eating and exercising habits and avoiding the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs to cope can increase your resilience to stress.