Mind Guide to Stress (booklet)

Mind Guide to Stress (booklet)
How to
manage stress
how to
manage stress
How to manage stress
This booklet is for anyone who wants to know
how to deal with stress and how to learn to
relax. It explains when and how stress can be
bad for you, and provides helpful strategies for
dealing with it and where to go for further help.
What is stress?
What causes stress?
Is stress harmful?
How can I tell if I'm under too much stress?
What's the best way to handle pressure?
How can I learn to relax?
What if relaxation doesn’t work for me?
What else can I do to cope with stress?
Useful contacts
How to manage stress
What is stress?
We all sometimes talk about stress, and feeling stressed, usually when
we feel we have too much to do and too much on our minds, or other
people are making unreasonable demands on us, or we are dealing with
situations that we do not have control over.
Stress is not a medical diagnosis, but severe stress that continues for a
long time may lead to a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, or more severe
mental health problems.
You can reduce the effects of stress by being more conscious of the
things that cause it, and learning to handle them better, using relaxation
techniques as well as other life-style changes.
What causes stress?
Situations which are recognised to be very stressful are associated with
change, and with lack of control over what is happening. Some of the
causes of stress are happy events, but because they bring big changes
or make unusual demands on you, they can still be stressful.
Some of the most stressful events are:
oving house
etting married
aving a baby
• s erious illness in yourself or a friend or family member.
Stress is also caused by long-term difficult circumstances, such as:
• r elationship problems
• c aring for a disabled family member or friend
Is stress harmful?
ifficulties at work
ad housing
oisy neighbours.
Not having enough work, activities or change in your life can be just as
stressful as have too much activity and change to deal with.
Is stress harmful?
Stress can have a positive side. A certain level of stress may be necessary
and enjoyable in order to help you prepare for something or to actually
do it – e.g. if you are taking part in a performance, taking an exam or you
have to do an important piece of work for a deadline – it will be stressful
even if you enjoy it, and the stress itself will keep you alert and focussed.
Our physical reactions to stress are determined by our biological history
and the need to respond to sudden dangers that threatened us when we
were still hunters and gatherers. In this situation, the response to danger
was ‘fight or flight’. Our bodies still respond in this way, releasing the
hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
The release of adrenaline causes rapid changes to your blood flow and
increases your breathing and heart rate, to get you ready to defend
yourself (fight) or to run away (flight). You become pale, sweat more and
your mouth becomes dry.
Your body responds in this way to all types of stress as if it were a
physical threat. You may merely be having an argument with someone,
but your body may react as though you were facing a wolf. If the threat
is physical, you use the effects of the adrenaline appropriately – to fight
or to run, and when the danger is passed your body recovers. But if the
stress is emotional, the effects of adrenaline subside more slowly, and
you may go on feeling agitated for a long time. If the causes of stress
How to manage stress
are long-term, you may always be tensed up to deal with them and never
relaxed. This is very bad for both your physical and your mental health.
The other stress hormone, cortisol, is present in your body all the time,
but levels increase in response to danger and stress. In the short-term, its
effects are positive, to help you deal with an immediate crisis, but longterm stress means that cortisol builds up and creates a number of stressrelated health problems.
Short-term positive effects:
quick burst of energy
ecreased sensitivity to pain
• increase in immunity
eightened memory.
Long-term negative effects:
• imbalances of blood sugar
• increase in abdominal fat storage
• s uppressed thyroid activity
ecreased bone density
ecreased muscle mass
igh blood pressure
• lowered immunity
• less able to think clearly.
People’s tolerance of stress varies. A situation that is intolerable to one
person may be stimulating to another. What you feel is determined not
just by events and changes in the outside world, but how you perceive
and respond to them.
The important point is that you can learn to recognise your own responses
to stress and develop skills to deal with it well.
How can I tell if I'm under too much stress?
How can I tell if I'm under too much stress?
There are a number of symptoms that suggest you are under stress.
The more of the following you experience, the more stressed you are.
How your body
may react
How you may feel
fast shallow breathing
constant tiredness
sleeping problems
tendency to sweat
nervous twitches
c ramps or muscle
pins and needles
high blood pressure
feeling sick or dizzy
c onstipation or
craving for food
indigestion or heartburn
lack of appetite
sexual difficulties
chest pains
rinding your teeth
at night
How you may behave
• fi
nding it difficult to
make decisions
• fi
nding it difficult to
fearing failure
reading the
enying there's a
loss of interest
voiding difficult
in others
taking no interest
• frequently crying
in life
• biting your nails
nable to show your
that there's no-one to
true feelings
confide in
eing very snappy
loss of sense of
or aggressive
• fi
nding it difficult to
bad or ugly
talk to others
fearful that you
are seriously ill
If you tick off your own reactions, you can get an idea of your personal
responses to stress. This can help you recognise signs of stress coming
on, in the future.
How to manage stress
What's the best way to handle pressure?
If your stress is caused by the pressure of being too busy and trying to fit
too much into the day, you will need to plan each day, with time for work
and other tasks, and time for relaxation. Making time for leisure, exercise
and holidays is just as essential as spending time on business or home
Remember that a little stress is good for the body and alerts the mind. But
it needs to be short-term and to be followed by a period of relaxation.
Manage your time
• I dentify your best time of day (you may be a morning person or an
evening person) and do the important tasks that need the most energy
and concentration at that time.
ake a list of things you have to do. Arrange them in order of
importance, and try to do the most urgent ones first.
ry to vary your tasks in a day. Vary dull jobs with interesting ones, tiring
jobs with easier ones.
ry not to do too many things at once. You could try to start something
else if you have to wait for the next stage in a previous task, but if you
have too many things going on at the same time, you will start to make
Act positively
nce you've finished a task, take a few moments to pause and relax.
Maybe have a healthy snack, spend a few minutes looking at the sky, or
try a relaxation exercise (See pp. 14-15).
ave a change of scene. A short walk can make a big difference to how
you feel, even if it’s a simple walk round the block. Try to focus on what
is happening around you, rather than thinking about your worries.
t the end of each day, sit back and reflect on what you've achieved,
rather than spending time worrying about what still needs to be done.
ry to get away every so often, if you can, even if it’s only for a day out.
How can I learn to relax?
evelop an absorbing hobby or interest – an activity that uses your
brain in a completely different way from your everyday work can be
a great release. It can also be a great way to make new friends. This
is sometimes easier when you are focussing on a shared activity with
others, and not on yourself.
ake time for your friends. Talking to them about your day and the
things you find difficult can help you keep things in perspective – and
you can do the same for them. Smiling and laughing with them will also
produce hormones which help you to relax.
ractise being straightforward and assertive in communicating with
others. If other people are making unrealistic or unreasonable demands
on you, be prepared to tell them how you feel and to say no. (See the
Impact Factory website in ‘Useful contacts’ for tips on assertiveness.)
• I f you find yourself in conflict with another person, try to find solutions
which are positive for them as well as for you. Try to find the real cause
of the problem and deal with it.
Try to accept things you can’t change
It isn’t always possible to change the things you don’t like or find difficult,
but you can try and change your own attitude to them so that you don’t
build up feelings of resentment or start taking your feelings out on others.
I saw a big road junction in India with a red traffic light that
said, ‘Relax’. Maybe more road junctions should have these.
How can I learn to relax?
Relaxation is the natural answer to stress. Everyone should make time in
the day to relax, whether we feel under stress, or not.
People often confuse relaxation with recreation. However, if hobbies or other
activities – including exercise – become excessive, and make you feel even
more driven or pressurised, they cease to be relaxing. If you are already
exhausted in daily life, trying to relax by doing even more is not the answer.
How to manage stress
The first thing is to become more relaxed in daily life and not to waste
energy on things that don't require it; such as fidgeting impatiently while
you wait for the kettle to boil, or getting impatient with the photocopier.
Instead take the opportunity for a few moments of calm.
The second is to learn some breathing and relaxation techniques.
Relaxation starts with breathing. Many people – especially those who are
under stress – have a tendency to take shallow breaths, using only the top
part of their chest to breathe, and not their stomach muscles. Learning
to breathe more deeply can make you feel a lot calmer and increase your
sense of wellbeing. Making your out-breath longer than your in-breath is
especially calming.
To improve the way you breathe, try this simple exercise:
it down, or lie down on your back. Make sure you are comfortable, and
loosen any tight clothing.
otice how you are breathing, how fast, how deeply, and how regularly.
ut one hand on your upper chest and one on your stomach, just below
your belly button.
lowly breathe out (count to 11)
ently breathe in (count to 7), so that you feel your stomach rise slowly
under your hand.
reathe out again (count to 11), feeling your stomach fall.
ause for a few moments and then repeat the process again.
If you find that only the hand on your stomach moves, then you are
breathing correctly. There should be little or no movement in your upper
chest; your hand should stay still. Once you have learned to breathe this
way, you may find you get into the habit of it all the time, and not just at
chosen relaxation times.
How can I learn to relax?
Relaxation techniques
There are three important parts to relaxation techniques:
reparation – this means making time for relaxation, choosing a suitable
position (see pp. 12-13 for some examples) and making sure you are
ethod – this should follow a logical sequence, and it will be more
effective if you stick to the suggested order.
ecovery – this should be part of any exercise you do (see p.15). Make
sure you include time for this part in your plans.
With regular practice and repetition, relaxation will become second nature.
• If possible, plan to set aside a specific time each day
• I f you can, choose a quiet place. It's easier to learn if you are not
• I f you have young children, see if they will join in doing the exercises
and then snuggle up to enjoy the peace and stillness.
• I t's impossible to relax if you are cold, so make sure you are comfortably
void practising relaxation when you are hungry or just after eating a meal.
• I f you use a CD or MP3 player have it close by so that you can operate it
without difficulty.
Don't worry about whether you're doing everything correctly; just do what
you can, and enjoy the feeling.
Whichever relaxation technique you use (see pp. 14-15), how you position
your body is crucial to it working effectively.
How to manage stress
Effective positions for relaxation
upport your head,
neck and knees
ead should be level,
not tilted back or pushed
• 'Old' recovery position
upport under head and
• Good if pregnant
• Support under pelvis
ood if overweight or
with large/heavy bust
Based on drawings by Michael Atherton, previously used
in the now discontinued The Mind guide to relaxation
How can I learn to relax?
nees high enough
to reduce tension in
stomach muscles
• Legs on chair sideways
upport right up to
behind knees
ood for relieving lower
nsure table is close
and arms are not
stretched out
lternatively, kneel
beside a bed
ack fully supported
by chair
hin and thighs parallel
to the floor
eet and hands resting
How to manage stress
A simple relaxation exercise
Try this every now and again, especially when you feel under pressure. It
should take you no more than five to ten minutes.
ave a stretch. Then let your shoulders and arms relax into a
comfortable position.
otice any tension in your feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs, chest,
arms, shoulders and neck.
• I f you are sitting in a chair, or on the floor, allow yourself to feel as if the
chair or the floor is supporting your whole weight.
ry to be peaceful; loosen your jaw and face.
ollow the breathing technique described on p. 10.
lose your eyes and imagine a peaceful scene, then imagine that you
are really there.
Like many other things, relaxation takes practice, but it is possible to learn
how to relax, even for short periods during your working day.
Simple muscle relaxation exercise
nce in a comfortable relaxation position, close your eyes and listen to
your breathing.
ry to slow down your breathing and make it deeper, following the
suggestions on p. 10.
ith each out-breath, relax each part of your body, in turn, from your
feet to the top of your head.
s you focus on each part of your body, think of warmth, heaviness and
hen you have reached your head, just listen to your breathing and
enjoy being still and comfortable.
fter 20 minutes, take some deep breaths and stretch your body.
Other relaxation exercises may involve actively tensing your muscles in
turn and then relaxing them, starting from your feet and working up to
your head.
How can I learn to relax?
You may relax so completely that you fall asleep. This is fine, so long as
you don’t sleep for too long and cause yourself problems. If there is a risk
of this happening, you might want to consider setting an alarm, though
you want it to be a gentle one and not a startling noise.
Deep relaxation
Deep relaxation is best learned from an experienced relaxation teacher
(See 'Useful contacts’ for organisations listing practitioners) or a good
relaxation CD.
Imagery is about imagining. This could be in the form of taking yourself
in your mind to a place where you feel relaxed. This can be anywhere
you like: a warm beach, a green meadow, a building or room you like and
feel comfortable in. The more immersed you become in this place in your
mind, the more relaxed you will feel.
Imagery can also take the form of imagining your worries being locked
up in a box and put away somewhere, or imagining that the tension is
flowing out of your body.
After a relaxation or breathing exercise, all your body rhythms will have
slowed down, so avoid jumping up quickly as you may become dizzy.
Always stretch, yawn, wriggle and have a lazy look around you. Say to
yourself, 'I will keep this feeling of calm for as long as I can'. Then move,
speak and breathe a little more gently than usual.
Relaxation leaves muscles softened, and it's important to be gentle when
bringing them back into action. Remove any cushions that are giving you
support. If lying down, don't pull yourself up using your stomach muscles,
but roll on to your side and push yourself into a sitting position, using your
arms. Then stand up slowly.
How to manage stress
What if relaxation doesn't work for me?
If you have tried relaxation and find it isn’t helping, it may be because:
ou are trying too hard, and in pressurising yourself you are losing the
opportunity to relax.
ou haven’t found the right relaxation method for you.
ou are so tense or in crisis, that letting go, even for a little bit, is
impossible for you at the moment.
ou haven't been through the three stages – preparation, relaxation and
recovery – in full.
ou are taking up a poor physical position for relaxation.
ou are uncomfortable; for example, feeling hungry.
ou can’t concentrate during practice: just listening to a teacher or CD
will have no benefit, if your mind is elsewhere.
If you start any relaxation technique and feel uncomfortable or disturbed,
do not continue.
What else can I do to cope with stress?
Acknowledging your problems
Sometimes, people let their lives slip into chaos to mask underlying
problems they are not facing or dealing with. The only person who can
decide if this is happening is you and, if it is, it may be a good idea to
consider talking things through with a professional. (See 'Useful contacts',
and Mind’s booklet Making sense of talking treatments.) Once you've
begun to tackle your problems, you will then be more able to relax.
What else can I do to cope with stress?
Sleep is very important to health, and sleep problems, such as insomnia,
are a common sign of stress. Lying awake worrying about things can make
everything seem a lot worse – and the small hours of the morning are the
worst time to be thinking about them. If you find you can’t stop worrying
it may help to write a list of the things that are bothering you, or write
yourself a letter about them. Once they are recorded, you may be able to
switch off and relax more easily. Some people find it very helpful to keep a
I find writing a diary an extremely helpful stress management
tool. My problems become ‘contained’ in the diary and I make sure
I do not write in it immediately before going to bed so I can switch
off from the problems in it.
For more information about sleep, see Mind's booklet How to cope with
sleep problems.
Mindfulness is an approach to wellbeing that involves accepting life and
living ‘in the moment’. This includes paying attention to the present
moment and taking time to see what is happening around you in a nonjudgmental way, rather than focussing on what you are trying to get done
and going over your problems again and again. It involves being aware of
each thought, feeling or sensation that comes to you and accepting it.
It is not about achieving a particular state or outcome but
more about learning the skills to meet your life the way it is.
– www.bemindful.co.uk
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a technique you can
learn by following a programme with a therapist or with a computer
programme. It is based on meditation techniques, and ‘moment-tomoment’ awareness – being conscious of what is happening and how you
How to manage stress
are feeling right now. It is not specific to any particular condition, but can
be helpful in coping with many situations.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is something you may be
able to get a referral for from your GP. This uses similar techniques to
MBSR, but also includes things such as identifying negative thoughts
which contribute to conditions like depression, and consciously challenging
them. It is recommended by NICE (National Institute for Health and
Clinical Excellence) for recurrent depression, and has also been found to
be effective for anxiety and insomnia.
Physical activity
Physical activity – as long as it is not done to excess – is important for
reducing stress levels and preventing some of its damaging effects on
the body. Exercise helps to use up the hormones that the body produces
under stress (see pp. 5-6), and relaxes the muscles. It will also help to
strengthen the heart and improve blood circulation. Physical activity also
stimulates the body to release endorphins – natural brain chemicals that
give you a sense of wellbeing – and can also help to raise self-esteem and
reduce anxiety and depression.
Exercise does not need to be sporty or competitive; you can benefit simply
by becoming more active, as part of your daily routine. Walking or cycling
rather than taking the car or bus, or climbing the stairs rather than using
the lift, can help a lot.
Healthy eating
When things get too hectic or difficult, and you feel under stress, it's often
easy to forget about eating well. But what you eat, and when you eat,
can make a big difference to how you feel and how well you cope. It's
important to make time for regular food or snacks and not to miss out on
meals, such as breakfast. Try not to rush; take time to enjoy what you're
What else can I do to cope with stress?
The key to a healthy diet is variety of different types of food, with a
balance of protein, carbohydrate, oily fat and fibre, including plenty of fruit
and vegetables.
When you are tired and stressed you may feel like a quick sugar rush, but
this will leave you feeling tired again later. It’s important to keep a steady
blood sugar level. Usually we are only aware of this if it has dropped and
we suddenly feel weak and hungry; but it may also affect your mood,
making you depressed or bad-tempered. If you can, try to eat things that
are digested more slowly and give you a steady supply of energy.
It’s also important to drink plenty of fluids; however, many sweet fizzy
drinks and caffeinated drinks can make you feel quite jittery – especially
if you are already stressed. (See the ‘Food and mood’ pages on Mind’s
website for more information.)
Alternative therapies
Many practitioners of alternative and complementary medicine take a
holistic approach, which emphasises the need to look at the whole person
and not just their symptoms. Meditation, different types of massage,
aromatherapy, and autogenics (a specialised relaxation technique) are
just a few examples of therapies which some people have found helpful in
relieving stress disorders and promoting relaxation. For more information
see ‘Useful contacts’ on p. 20.
Having fun
Making time for regular leisure activities can help you release tension,
and to take your mind off the worries of the day. Whether you unwind by
soaking in a hot bath, browsing through your favourite books, listening
to music, gardening or photography, the important point is to enjoy the
activity, purely for itself, and take your mind off work or whatever is
causing you stress.
How to manage stress
Useful contacts
Mind Infoline: 0300 123 3393
(Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm)
email: [email protected]
web: mind.org.uk
Details of local Minds and other
local services, and Mind’s Legal
Advice Line. Language Line is
available for talking in a language
other than English.
The British Complementary Medicine
Association (BCMA)
tel. 0845 345 5977
web: bcma.co.uk
British Association for Counselling
and Psychotherapy (BACP)
tel. 01455 883 300
web: bacp.co.uk
Contact for details of local
The British Wheel of Yoga
tel. 01529 306 851
web: bwy.org.uk
For information about yoga and
teachers in your area.
British Autogenic Society (BAS)
tel. 07534 539425
web: autogenic-therapy.org.uk
For simple exercises in body
awareness and relaxation and
details of practitioners.
The British Holistic Medical
web: bhma.org
Information about holistic
approaches to health.
First Steps to Freedom – the Anxiety
helpline: 0845 120 2916
Offers advice and information to
help with anxiety.
Impact Factory
web: assertiveness.org.uk
Website with tips on assertiveness.
How is schizophrenia
The Institute for Complementary
and Natural Medicine (ICNM)
tel. 020 7922 7980
web: icnm.org.uk
For details of complementary
United Kingdom Council for
Psychotherapy (UKCP)
tel. 020 7014 9955,
web: psychotherapy.org.uk
A body of around 80 organisations
offering psychotherapy.
International Stress Management
Association (ISMA)
tel. 0845 680 7083
web: isma.org.uk
A registered charity for the
prevention and reduction of stress.
Lists stress practioners.
Mental Health Foundation
web: mentalhealth.org.uk
Information includes the
mindfulness website
No Panic
helpline: 0800 138 8889
web: nopanic.org.uk
Help and local self groups for people
experiencing anxiety.
Further information
Support Mind
Mind offers a range of mental
health information on:
• diagnoses
• treatments
• practical help for wellbeing
• mental health legislation
• where to get help
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This booklet was written by
Katherine Darton, Mind
Published by Mind 2012 © Mind 2012
To be revised 2014
ISBN 978-1-906759-42-1
No reproduction without permission
Mind is a registered charity No. 219830
(National Association for Mental Health)
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London E15 4BQ
tel. 020 8519 2122
fax: 020 8522 1725
web: mind.org.uk
e're Mind, the mental health charity for England
and Wales. We believe no one should have to face
a mental health problem alone. We're here for you.
Today. Now. We're on your doorstep, on the end
of a phone or online. Whether you're stressed,
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