Stress: what you need to know
Stress is a normal part of life, something that everybody experiences.
Some stress can be OK, giving you the motivation and focus to face challenges and get things done. But too much stress can be overwhelming, making it difficult to cope with everyday things.
Managing your stress is good for your emotional and mental health and wellbeing. And when your stress is under control and you’re feeling well, you’re better able to navigate the challenges of family life. This helps your children grow, develop and thrive.
What causes stress?
Changes in your life, even positive ones, can be stressful. For example, moving house is a stressful event for many people.
Feeling uncertain, not having control over your environment, and having too much to do and not enough time to do it are also big causes of stress. It’s easy to see how a new baby might create this kind of stress, or a toddler who has public tantrums, or a teenage child who’s pushing the boundaries.
And then there are the everyday challenges – for example, getting yourself and the children out the door and off to school and work on time.
Signs that you might be stressed
If you’re stressed, your body will probably let you know. In a stressful moment, your heart rate might go up, your breathing might get faster, and your muscles might tense up.
Sometimes these short-term stress reactions can actually help you deal with stressful situations. For example, they might give you the adrenaline rush you need to get to the bus on time.
But if you keep going at this speed, your body will get exhausted. You might end up with headaches, sleep problems, digestive problems or the feeling that you just can’t cope. This obviously isn’t good for your health and wellbeing.
So it’s important to watch out for signs of stress. You might be stressed if you’re:
- worrying most of the time
- drinking too much alcohol, smoking or using drugs
- finding it hard to be tolerant with your partner or children
- having trouble sleeping
- not feeling well – perhaps you have headaches or other aches and pains
- not wanting to get out of bed in the morning
- having thoughts like ‘I’m never going to get out of this mess’
- feeling that you’re not managing practical everyday things, like family routines and finances.
Knowing your stress triggers
If you know what your stress triggers are, it can be easier to deal with stress. You might be able to avoid stressful situations, or prepare yourself. A useful exercise is to write down what makes you feel stressed.
For example, your child crying for a long time might be very stressful for you. If it’s important for you to be on time, you might find it stressful when you can see the clock ticking but your children are moving slowly. If you love a clean and tidy house but no longer have one, this could be stressful.
Simple stress management: five tips
1. Think and talk positively
Unhelpful thinking makes it harder to deal with stressful things – for example, in a stressful situation you might think, ‘What’s wrong with me? I can’t get things together’.
But you can change unhelpful thinking into helpful thinking and positive self-talk, which are good ways to deal with stress. They increase your positive feelings and your ability to cope with stressful situations.
To put realistic thinking and positive self-talk into action, try the following:
- Challenge unhelpful thoughts about things that cause you stress. For example, your child cries in the supermarket. You think, ‘Everyone will think I’m a bad parent’. But you could ask yourself, ‘How do I know that people will think this?’, ‘Would I think this about someone else?’ or ‘What can I do to deal with this problem?’
- Be realistic about what you can do. For example, it might be too much to expect your child never to cry in the supermarket. But perhaps you could change the situation so the crying is less likely to happen. Would your child cry less if you went shopping at a different time of day, perhaps after your child has had a nap?
- Develop positive self-talk statements that help you. For example, you could say to yourself, ‘The shopping won’t take much longer – I can get through it’, ‘People are minding their own business – they’re not looking at us’, ‘I can do this’ or ‘I will stay calm’.
- Know your limits and choose your battles. It might be best to avoid overwhelming experiences if you can. For example, try online shopping if supermarket shopping is too hard for you and your child.
- Practise positive self-talk. The more you do it, the more automatic it will become.
2. Focus on what’s essential
Stress often means you’re trying to do too much, so try setting realistic goals for your day. You could also avoid taking on more than you can handle.
Making a plan and having some family routines can help you feel more on top of things and take your stress down a notch or two.
And if you have some large tasks to deal with, they might be more manageable if you break them down into smaller chunks. You might also think about asking for some help from family or friends.
3. Stay connected with others
Talking things over with your partner or a friend can help you keep things in perspective.
Spending some time with friends can be a real help too. Even meeting for a quick coffee can be enough, because sharing worries can help you feel supported and better able to cope.
If you have limited time, connecting with other parents through social media or email can help you stay in touch with like-minded people.
4. Focus on your physical health
Look after your physical health by eating well, getting some exercise, and making time for rest.
If you find it hard to get to sleep, do quiet activities like reading in the hour before bed.
If you’re lying awake at night for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and read something non-stimulating until you feel sleepy. You could also try doing some guided meditation to help you relax. If stress or worry is keeping you up, it might help to write down your worries and look at them the next day.
Avoid stimulants like cigarettes and caffeine, and depressants like alcohol if you can.
5. Try to make more time for yourself
If you’re working long hours, think about whether there are ways you could cut down or make work more flexible.
Make time to do things you enjoy, whether that’s reading, watching television, gardening, having fun with family and friends, and so on. Try to do one thing on the list every day, or every couple of days, and especially on the weekend. Even if it’s only 15 minutes, it’s still time for you.
Be aware that you might not be able to ‘give to others’ if you’re under stress yourself. It’s important to give to yourself at these times. This might mean that you need to slow down your social life for a while or learn to say no sometimes.
Humour does wonders to melt away stress. Smiling and laughing is one of the best relaxation techniques, and enjoying yourself can really help your stress levels. Try talking with a friend who makes you laugh, or watching a funny TV show.
If stress continues: seeking help
If you’re still feeling very stressed every day, it might help to talk to a health professional. You could start by seeing your GP, who can help you make a plan for managing stress. This might include referring you to another health professional for some specialist support.
Stress is often the result of trouble with time management or other issues. It can help to work with a professional on identifying the issues and coming up with solutions.
You can find more stress management techniques in our activity guides on breathing, muscle relaxation and mindfulness. You can also search online for stress management and relaxation apps, books, YouTube videos and so on.