Whether it’s chaotic family life or crazy work deadlines, it’s virtually impossible to avoid getting stressed these days.
No wonder nearly 75% of Brits say that they are so overwhelmed with stress, they are finding it difficult to cope.1
But you can get a handle on your stress levels. Find out what could be behind your stress and how to bring your life back into balance.
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s reaction to pressure, and it all starts when the stress response is triggered.2
When you sense danger – like a car hurtling towards you – your brain prompts the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
These powerful hormones then activate the sympathetic nervous system, which causes rapid physical changes that are designed to help you escape.3
That restless, jittery, stomach-churning sensation you experience when you’re stressed is the infamous ‘fight or flight’ response, helping your body get ready to leap into action.4
How does the stress response affect the body?
The fight or flight response has the following short-term impact on your body’s biological systems:5
- Heart beats faster
- Breathing speeds up
- Blood is diverted from the digestive system to the brain and muscles
- Glucose is released into the bloodstream, providing a sudden burst of energy
- Senses sharpen
Once your brain is happy that the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over to dampen down the stress response, bringing your heart rate and breathing back to normal.6
Why do we get stressed?
The body’s response to stress is actually an important survival mechanism handed down from our ancestors.
Although nowadays, it’s more likely to be triggered by psychological threats such as running late for a meeting, rather than a sabre-toothed tiger.
But a little stress can still be a good thing; it can keep you clear-headed in the midst of any chaos, while that jittery feeling before a job interview can help you focus and power through.
What causes long-term stress?
While some stress can be good for us, trouble can build up if those stressors (the causes of stress) don’t disappear.
For example, if you have a very responsible job or you’re in an unhealthy relationship, cortisol is continually released and your sympathetic nervous system never switches off.
This constant state of high alert is known as chronic stress.
Symptoms of chronic stress include:7
- feeling very agitated and/or restless
- sleep problems
- weight gain
- ‘foggy’ brain
- reduced immunity
- difficulty concentrating
If left unchecked, long-term stress could lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.8,9,10
A 2019 study in European Journal of Endocrinology followed more than 73,500 women for 22 years, and reported that those with mentally demanding, stressful jobs were more likely to go on to develop type 2 diabetes.11
Chronic stress can take its toll mentally, too. In 2018, researchers from Harvard Medical School reported that high levels of cortisol appear to shrink the brain, affecting memory.12
It could also lead to depression in some people as stress negatively affects sleep, appetite and motivation, which are all linked with depression.13
11 steps to tackling stress
Your first step is to see your GP to rule out any physical causes.
They can also recommend any suitable treatments, such as anti-anxiety medication or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
If you prefer, you can refer yourself to a local psychological therapies service, or download a mental health app to help manage stress.
While it’s not possible to remove all stress from our lives, we can change the way we respond to the triggers.
Try one of these 11 stress-busters:
Open the fabulously minimalist website ‘Do Nothing For Two Minutes’ and see how well you do! Spend two minutes doing absolutely nothing but listening to the soothing sounds.
Being still like this not only calms you down, but emerging evidence shows that doing nothing activates an important part of the brain called the default mode network, which actually helps us cope more effectively with stress.14
Breathe deeply from your abdomen – rather than high in your chest. This helps to lower cortisol levels, and reduce your heart and blood pressure.15
A 2013 study, published in Journal of Health Research, reported that the brains of people smelling the scent of jasmine produced more calming beta-waves within seconds.
They also immediately felt a greater sense of wellbeing.16
Hit the nearest green space
Nature has an instant calming effect on our body. In 2009, researchers at the University of Essex reported that people leaving a park experienced lower levels of tension, anger and depression than those entering.
And while some of the study participants stayed in the park for just 15 minutes, and others wandered for up to two hours, the researchers didn’t find that staying longer gave a bigger boost.17
Sit up straight
Your posture can make a huge difference to how you think. In a 2015 study, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, a group of 74 people felt more positive and higher self-esteem when asked to do something stressful while sitting upright – rather than slumped.
The researchers suggest that we feel more resilient and powerful when we’re sitting upright, and this translates to positive changes in the body.18
Practice mindfulness – regular meditation can help lower cortisol levels.19
Meditation can be as simple as taking a moment to sit comfortably, focus on your breathing, and try to let any thoughts you have pass by.
Take some exercise
Exercise reduces levels of adrenaline and cortisol.20
It might seem strange that putting a strain on your body when you exercise could help you overcome stress, but regular exercise can actually reduce the body’s stress hormone (cortisol) and release feel-good hormones called endorphins.
Plus, it can also help you sleep better. Research has found that people that make exercise a part of their lives are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.
From car trouble to toddler tantrums, it can be difficult to avoid stressful situations in the first place.
However, keeping active can help you manage stress more effectively whilst improving your fitness levels.
Although taking part in any exercise you enjoy can help you cope with tension and anxiety, certain forms may be more effective. Some of these include:
Get your trainers on and run out the door to soothe your nerves and clear your mind.
Studies have shown that going for a long run a few times a week can improve feelings of stress and anxiety in the long run.
Not only will you be able to release your frustrations, running gets your heart pumping, burns calories and it doesn’t cost a penny.
Handpicked content: How good is running for you?
This ancient practice aims to balance the body and mind using breathing techniques and gentle movements.
Evidence suggests that yoga can also reduce anxiety by reducing symptoms of stress such as increased cortisol levels and a quicker heart rate.
Some studies have even reported that yoga could work as well as antidepressant medications to treat depression.
There are several different types of yoga but certain forms focus on relaxing stretching that can take away your stresses.
Taking a leisurely stroll each day is a great way to take your mind off any pressures you’re dealing with.
If you’re able to walk through the countryside or a park, that’s even better.
Evidence suggests that walking in a natural area for 90 minutes could reduce your risk of developing depression.
Dive into your local swimming pool to tackle stress and ease mental strains after a long day.
Whether you choose to push yourself with a few fast-paced laps or glide along at a slower speed, the mental focus you need to be able to swim through the water can help you forget about the problems troubling your mind.
Studies carried out on swimmers discovered that they experienced a more positive frame of mind and felt less tense.
Handpicked content: How good is swimming for you?
Supplement your diet
Top up on vitamin B6 – a 2014 study in Nutrition Journal found chronic stress depletes levels of this nutrient.
Eat wholegrains, bananas and beans, or choose a vitamin B-complex supplement.21
Are you getting enough magnesium?
This mineral is needed for normal nervous system function, and can help rebalance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, according to a 2016 German study.22,23
A huge culprit for our lower mood in winter is decreased vitamin D. A lack of sun during this time of year makes it easy for us to fall short on this vital vitamin. So you might want to consider adding this supplement to your diet.
Turn your phone off
Gone are the days when our phones were simply used to speak to people.
Nowadays, we’re constantly connected to social media and work emails via our smartphones.
In the long run, this can worsen mental and emotional stress leaving us frustrated when we should be winding down.
Evidence suggests that continuously checking emails triggers anxiety and worry, so why not switch it off every once in a while?24
Have a cuddle
Sometimes all you need is a hug to make you feel better and a cuddle could be the key to easing stress.
One study even showed that as well as helping you feel less stressed out, people who were hugged more often reported feeling more supported by those around them.25
Spend time with a pet
Our furry friends have been proven again and again to have a positive effect on stress levels.
From stroking and cuddling together to going on dog walks, there are many benefits to having a pet, including stress reduction and lowering blood pressure!26
If you do not have a pet, you could try becoming a pet-sitter or “borrowing” someone’s pet via one of the many apps available for just that!
Grab a stress ball
Branded stress balls are now big business - a simple web search will bring up hundreds of companies dedicated to putting companies’ logos on these stress-relieving toys.
If you are looking for a cure for serious or chronic stress, then these simple toys are not going to be a magic bullet.
However, stress experts say that any release of energy is helpful in order to release some of the built-up adrenaline that comes from the stress response, which can make the body tense.27
Top 7 essential oils for stress relief and how to use them
Essential oils are extracted from the petals, leaves, bark and roots of plants, and offer a natural calming effect for feelings of stress.
This can be beneficial if you feel stressed regularly and don’t want to rely on medication, or if you want a short-term solution for situations like an exam or job interview.
There are many essential oils that can help promote relaxation, with each one targeting a different stress trigger.
All essential oils should be used according to the direction for use provided on the packaging.
The choice can be overwhelming, so here are 7 of the best essential oils for calmness:
Rose essential oil has an unmistakable scent and comes a close second to lavender in terms of being used for stress relief.
It is an uplifting essential oil, which boosts mental strength and makes you feel more confident.28
Chamomile is a peaceful and calming scent.
Using chamomile oil in a diffuser to disperse the scent into the air, in a bath blend, or as part of a massage oil, can help dispel some of the physical and mental tension caused by a hard day
With its exotic scent, frankincense encourages feelings of inner peace by promoting calmness and relaxation.
The warm, rich scent encourages a calming and reflective effect, promoting serenity and stillness.
Sourced from the rind of this zesty fruit, orange and sweet orange essential oils have been known to uplift moods with their sweet, sunny and refreshing scents.
Take a trip down memory lane as you inhale vanilla essential oil. It’ll soothe your mind and help you think more clearly.
It’s a natural ingredient used in all areas of the food and personal care industry for its familiar scent, as well as other benefits.29 For many people, the aroma reminds them of eating ice cream as a child.
Clary sage originates from the Latin “clarus”, meaning “clear.”
We like to think of clary sage as “clearing” away the dark clouds of our mood, as it’s traditionally been known for its uplifting and euphoric actions.
Lavender is one of the most popular essential oils. It has a diverse range of benefits, including promoting calmness and relaxation.
It can help soothe and prepare you for a good night’s sleep, or just to help unwind after a difficult day. As a stress reliever, it is one of the most calming oils to use.
How essential oils relieve stress
Inhaling the aromas of essential oils stimulates the olfactory nerves within your nose. These nerves then communicate with the limbic system within your brain.
The limbic system, often known as your “emotional brain”, is directly connected to other parts of the brain that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress levels and hormone balance.
This is why our sense of smell is so closely linked to our emotional responses and mood, and why certain smells remind us of past experiences.
Through the skin
Essential oils can also be applied to the skin, either within a cream or a carrier oil, such as sweet almond oil or olive oil.
The small molecules of the oil quickly diffuse into the bloodstream and are carried throughout the body, relieving muscle tension and general aches and pains caused by stress.
Remember: not all essential oils can be applied directly to the skin.
They must be mixed with a carrier oil first to dilute them. This also makes it easier for the skin to absorb them. Always carry out a patch test first with any new oil you try.
It is important to seek professional advice and to follow instructions carefully when using essential oils.
Try it for yourself
Here are a few easy ways you can get the calming benefits of your favourite essential oil:
- Add a few drops to a tissue and inhale the aroma for quick, calming relief
- Mix with water in a spray bottle for a calming spritz (try spraying a scarf and carrying it with you throughout the day)
- Add a few drops of essential oil mixed with a carrier oil to your bath for a warm, relaxing soak
- Sprinkle a bit onto your pillow, allowing it to evaporate for a few minutes before lying down for a restful night’s sleep
- Use a diffuser for long-lasting calmness around your home
- Mix with a carrier oil or unscented body lotion to massage away tense muscles
Wondering which essential oil is right for you? Pick the one you like the smell of most - this is your body’s way of telling you that it’s the right one for you!
Dr Julie Smith: Your toolkit for mental health
If you’re part of Julie’s social media audience of three million, you’ll already know how brilliant she is at distilling complex mental health issues and creating simple tools you can use if you want to know how to improve your own mental wellbeing. Here Dr Julie and Gemma discuss:
- What is self-compassion?
- The difference between low mood and depression
- why values are more important than self-esteem
Dr Julie Smith: Your toolkit for mental health
Last updated: 10 June 2022
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.