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LAST REVIEWED 16 January 2023

How to deal with stress

Feeling stressed? Focus on what you can control. Good Thinking explains why this is so important and where to go if you need further support.

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It may seem obvious but one of the ways that what is happening in the world affects people is by increasing stress – whether that's worrying about your health, climate change, the cost of living or something else. With this article, the Good Thinking team aims to help people across London to manage these feelings and improve their mental wellbeing.

Whilst stress is a perfectly normal, even healthy, reaction in the body and mind to some type of threat (it prepares you for ‘fight or flight’), when you face ongoing threats and challenges, it becomes something quite different. When you’re stressed, you might experience a range of symptoms, including back pain, stomach upsets and feeling tired or irritable.

Of course, there are different types of stress. When you prepare for an important exam or meeting or when you’re stuck in traffic, the stress is short term and reaches an end point. Compare that with the ongoing emotional pressure you feel if you have a busy job, an unhappy family situation or money worries, which may lead to chronic or long-term stress.

When someone is highly stressed we sometimes say that they have 'lost their mind' and, in some ways, they may have, if their mind has been invaded by worries about things they can’t possibly control. Keeping all of your concerns about the economy and other issues under control can be exhausting and, at some point, you might start to drown in them. But that will get you nowhere. Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce these kinds of stresses.

Focus on what you can do

Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, suggests there is something simple that you can do to reduce stress: “...the single most useful thing anyone can do in any type of crisis… is to focus on what’s in your control.”

When we focus on something that we can do, which has some sort of end, we feel more effective and less trapped – even if it doesn’t always go right. So, if you’re stuck in a situation that is stressful, whether at home or at work, make sure you focus on the small things you can do that make a difference. That might be doing some chores, appreciating the food you cook, listening to your favourite podcast or doing something nice for someone else. 

The really important thing is to not measure the size of what you do; it is completing the activity that will give you some feeling of achievement. When you focus on that, it is really powerful. A study of those fleeing war zones and persecution found that this activity of focusing on some part of their life where they had control gave them hope and helped them to cope better with stress, even though they may have lost their homes and members of their family.

Don’t drown in worries

On Good Thinking, free NHS-approved wellbeing apps like Be Mindful and My Possible Self can help guide you in the process of lowering stress. If you feel so overwhelmed that it’s hard to focus, you might find the cognitive fitness and mental resilience app MyCognition PRO useful. After assessing how your brain is working (e.g. how good your attention and memory are) then playing the personalised in-app video game, AquaSnap, you can improve your ability to concentrate, solve problems, make good decisions and perform effectively.

Occasional moderate stress tends not to cause mental health problems but if you often feel stressed and it’s affecting the way you behave towards others, speak to your GP who might be able to refer you to a specialist counselling service. You could also use the NHS Talking Therapies service finder to get details of your nearest NHS Talking Therapy service or, if you need urgent support, please contact your local 24/7 NHS mental health helpline.

The better you can focus on what you can control, the more clearly you can take in that not everything is out of control. If there are tough things to face or sort out, you’ll be in better shape to take on those challenges. And, once you’re feeling less stressed, you’ll be in a stronger position to support your family, friends and wider community.

As Dr Harris says, you can’t control certain situations and you can’t even control how you feel about them. So, step away from the bigger picture for a moment and make a note of something you can do, a behaviour that you can be in control of. It might just throw you a line and rescue you from drowning in worries.

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