Stress isn’t always obvious.
Sometimes, people don’t recognise the signs of stress, or if they do, they don’t believe that it’s a problem for them personally. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, stress is one of many natural reactions to what is an unusual and emotionally challenging situation. It’s important to understand what the common indicators of stress are, how to know if you’re stressed, and how to deal with it once you are aware.
What is stress?
Stress is a feeling of strain or pressure. While we commonly think of stress as too much mental or emotional pressure, physical stress is also important. Stress can affect how you feel, think and behave as well as how your body works.
Everyone needs a certain amount of stress or pressure to live well - it's what helps to motivate you throughout the day. However, stress becomes a problem when you either begin to feel too much stress, or not enough. While a lack of stress often means your body is under-stimulated, too much intense stress causes your body to release stress hormones over a long period. This increases the risk of a range of physical health problems including headaches, a low immune system, stomach upsets, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. When left untreated, stress can even increase the risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
Often, stress leads to people feeling distrustful, angry, anxious and fearful, which in turn can affect relationships both at home and at work. Stress also plays a key role in the development of a range of mental health problems, including anxiety disorders and depression.
How do you know if you are stressed?
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but how we manage it makes all the difference. People have various ways of dealing with stress, and some situations that may be motivating to one person, could feel stressful to someone else.
Sometimes, people can tell right away if they’re feeling stressed, especially if they have experienced stress before, or they know what triggers it; however, for many, stress isn’t so obvious, or it is simply something they don’t want to acknowledge.
Stress can be experienced both in the short and long term. For example, while you may feel fine being in lockdown for the first few weeks, the prolonged isolation and juggle of work and childcare can increase stress over time. It’s also not always easy to pinpoint what is putting you under pressure, as it can be caused by a buildup of lots of smaller issues, which can make it difficult to articulate why you’re feeling stressed.
Some possible causes of stress are:
- Our individual genes, upbringing and experiences
- Difficulties in our personal lives and relationships
- Big or unexpected life changes, like moving house, having a baby or starting to care for someone
- Money difficulties, like debt or struggling to afford daily essentials
- Health issues (yours, or someone close to you)
- Pregnancy and children
- Problems with housing, such as living conditions, maintenance or tenancy
- Feeling lonely and unsupported
How do you deal with stress?
Some people are able to deal with stress better than others. For some, stress can take over their lives and become overwhelming, whereas others may be able to cope with a great deal of pressure and thrive. Either way, you need to know how to effectively manage stress, once you become aware of the problem.
Consider what it is that makes you feel stressed.
In order to manage the immediate, often uncomfortable signs of stress, you must first think about what it is that is making you feel stressed.
Many aspects of life can cause stress, such as money problems, work issues or difficult relationships, much of which is magnified in the current situation. People often feel over-stressed as a result of an event or 'trigger', and even if you’re aware of what causes you to feel stressed, you can’t always avoid it.
Stress doesn't have to be negative like the death of a loved one, redundancy or divorce - it can also be positive in instances such as finding a new partner, getting a new job or going on holiday. Out of difficult circumstances can come good things - even lockdown - although it can be hard to imagine when feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Acknowledge the effect stress is having on you
It is only by acknowledging that we are stressed and listening to ourselves both physically and mentally that we can begin to manage it effectively.
In the context of COVID-19, it’s likely that many people are stressed, but they aren’t able to recognise the signs in themselves. Stress can affect you both mentally and physically, and it can have a significant impact on your behaviour.
How you may be feeling
The emotional signs of stress can include, but aren’t limited to feeling:
- Irritable, impatient or angry with no real explanation
- Overwhelmed, out of control, or helpless
- Like you cannot stop your thoughts from racing
- Difficulty making decisions
- Disconnected from reality
- Low self confidence and self esteem
- Worried about your health
- Anxious or fearful
- Constantly worried
- Difficulty concentrating
How you may be physically affected
The physical signs of stress may include, but aren’t limited to:
- Muscle tension and pain
- Sleep problems - whether it’s an inability to sleep, struggling with falling asleep, or difficulty staying asleep and waking up
- Feeling tired all the time
- Feeling nauseous or dizzy
- Eating too much or too little
- Reduced or increased sex drive.
How you might be behaving
The behavioural signs of stress include, but aren’t limited to:
- An increased reliance on smoking, alcohol or other recreational substances
- An inability to enjoy activities you once did, or any recreational activities
- Being unable to “switch off” from work
- Being unable to engage with work, poor time management and standard of work
- Self neglect and reckless behaviour
- Unprovoked aggression, or outbursts of anger
- Social withdrawal
- Avoiding things or people you are having problems with.
Everyone can probably recognise at least one of the signs listed above, and it’s likely that many of us have experienced stress in our lives. However, the symptoms of stress vary across individuals and recognising signs of stress in yourself is an important step in dealing with it.
Once people recognise that they are stressed, their immediate reaction may be to deny, or downplay the consequences of the situation, which is often due to not wanting to seem vulnerable, feelings of shame, or a reluctance to face the facts of the issue.
While this is a natural human response to troubling situations generally, once a problem is acknowledged, it relieves anxiety, and enables you to begin helping yourself.
Manage the situation and ourselves
Once we know what causes stress for us and we’re able to recognise the signs that we’re becoming stressed , we then need to learn how to manage it.
Feeling a loss of control is something many will be experiencing during lockdown, and it is one of the main causes of stress. While changing a difficult situation isn't always possible, it can help to concentrate on the things you do have control over. This act of taking control is in itself empowering.
To find out some of the ways in which you can practice mindfulness at home, check out our infographic.
Enable and Resource - Ourselves
What may work for one person or situation won’t necessarily work for another. Therefore, as an individual, you need to develop ways of dealing with your stress so that you are able to be more resilient to both big and small challenges.
People in difficult situations (such as the current COVID-19 pandemic) can often experience multiple losses such as their future stability, power over their situation, choice, familiarity, friends and belongings.
Experience and evidence shows that communities and individuals recover more quickly if they feel able to regain some control over their situation. Thinking about how you can help yourself can help you regain a sense of predictability and power which can allow for a quicker recovery.
Positive psychology suggests that remembering instances of “past positive success‟ is a good indicator of positive outcomes in the future. Remembering that you have successfully coped with difficult situations in the past, and identifying what helped and why may be a good place to start.
Look to identify resources that may help you, and ways you can build your resilience. For example, if your stress is work-related, you may identify more practical ways to reduce the stress work is causing you, such as reporting a problem to your employer, so you can do your job more easily. Little changes like this can make a big difference to how you are feeling. On top of this, practical and personal resources such as supportive friends and family can help you move towards recovery.
In these unprecedented times, if you are experiencing stress, then it’s unlikely that it will simply disappear once the lockdown is over. The long-term impact of COVID-19 is unknown, and it’s important that you take the steps necessary to take care of yourself in this difficult, uncertain period.
Our advice is built around the CALMER framework: Consider, Acknowledge, Listen, Manage, Enable and Resource. This framework is transferable, but you can find out more about the British Red Cross approach with our short video below.
Topics: Mental health & wellbeing