Considering the year we’ve all collectively experienced, it’s unsurprising to hear that the multiple lockdowns we’ve endured and the constant uncertainty of the pandemic has left 39% of us feeling more stressed.

Even before the first lockdown in 2020, our research found that 4 in 10 workers felt as though they were so stressed in their daily lives that they were close to breaking point. Now, with a staggering 1.9 million monthly Google searches related to stress, and a huge rise in searches for keywords such as ’stress symptoms’, ‘physical symptoms of stress’ we’re clearly looking for answers and guidance on the topic.

It’s inevitable that most of us will suffer stress, and it’s a condition most of us have experienced at some point. However, exposure to long-term (chronic) stress can have a real impact on our physical health and wellbeing.

When we’re suffering from long-term stress, our body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls our heart rate, breathing, vision changes and more, is working overdrive. Whilst its built-in stress reaction, the “fight-or-flight response,” is designed to help the body face stressful situations, overexposure can cause wear and tear. This can result in physical health issues.

The physical symptoms of stress to look out for are:

- Aches, pains and tense muscles
- Chest pain or feeling like your heart is racing
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
- Headaches, dizziness or shaking
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Stomach or digestive problems. These can include diarrhoea, constipation, and nausea
- Weak immune system
- Frequent colds and infections

As well as these, long-term stress can lead to emotional and mental health symptoms, such as:

- Anxiety or irritability
- Depression
- Panic attacks
- Sadness

It’s incredibly important to listen to our bodies, especially if we’re experiencing any of the symptoms suggested above. Stress, and symptoms of stress need to be taken seriously, because as we’ve seen, it can cause real issues and even damage to our bodies, as well as our overall mental wellbeing.

Unfortunately, for many of us, stress is unavoidable, and living through a global pandemic is likely, for some, to have brought on the feelings and symptoms associated to stress. This is clearly demonstrated by the peaks in googling the term ‘stress’ at the beginning of each lockdowns we’ve experienced. So, if we can’t avoid stress, how can we stop it from becoming overwhelming?

Exercise

The positive benefits that exercise can have are evident for us all to see, including lifting our moods. When you feel symptoms of stress coming on, if you are able, get yourself moving. Even a short walk can help to improve your mood, as well as give you an opportunity to clear your mind without any distractions.
 
Eating well is another important factor in combatting stress. Whilst we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of treats, or become obsessive about our diets, eating and sleeping well are huge mood boosters, and will help to keep things in perspective.

Focus on the positives

It can be human nature for us to only think about what we haven’t achieved each day. Many of us judge our successes by how much work we’ve still got left to do. It’s important to always sit back and think about what you have actually achieved.

Set realistic goals for each day, week and month. Doing so will narrow your view and help you feel more in control of the moment and long-term tasks.

Consider practising gratitude each day and thinking about what you’re thankful for. Dedicating time to thinking about the positives in your world will work towards improving your mindset.

Be strong

Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ if you’re having additional tasks thrown at you. For many of us, the fear of saying ‘no’ to our colleagues, bosses and even family members and loved ones outweighs the fear of the additional stress this is likely to cause us. Saying no will promote setting healthy boundaries with those around you and will open a dialogue which will allow you to talk through what your focus is currently on.
 
It’s also important to accept that you cannot control everything, and that at times, asking for help is the best option. Learn how you can let go of worrying about situations you can’t change and turn your focus to things you can manage. This can be achieved by:

- Challenge your worries, and consider whether you’re looking at a situation in a more negative light than it truly is
- Figure out if your concern is solvable, or unsolvable. Problem solving is a lot more constructive than worrying, and will help you work towards conclusions
- When you feel yourself worrying, try to interrupt these thoughts with activities, exercise and relaxing mindfulness

Focus on relaxing

Dedicating a small portion of your day to relaxing will not only give you something to look forward to but will give you that all-important opportunity to switch off. Try relaxation activities, such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation.

Self-care is often sniffed at but has never been more important. Simple things such as treating yourself to a long bath after a tough day, or even watching a couple of episodes of your favourite feel-good series will go a long way towards improving your mental wellbeing, and help you compartmentalise the negative emotions you may be experiencing.

By Kelly Feehan, Services Director at CABA, the wellbeing charity

For more advice, visit our mental wellbeing support page, which has information on how we can help you take care of your mental wellbeing and support the people around you. With self-help resources, interactive online tools, and professional, one-to-one services, there’s something for everyone.