Wondering how to manage stress? You’re in good company.
According to the independent health provider Priory, between 2019-2021 there was a 55% increase in people seeking help for stress or anxiety. This is unsurprising, given that we’ve been living through a pandemic and are now faced with rising inflation and increases in the cost of living. But in order to know how to manage stress, we first need to know what the signs of stress (opens in new tab) are, and what it does to our body and mind.
“When we are stressed our bodies produce additional hormones,” says Debra Longsdale (opens in new tab), a therapist and clinical director of Priory’s private therapy services. These are mainly adrenaline and cortisone. “Adrenaline raises heart rate and increases blood pressure, and our body reacts by sending blood to our major organs to prepare and equip us to go into ‘flight or fight’ mode,” she says. “And when we become ‘stressed’ our bodies produce more cortisol, releasing glucose from our livers for faster energy.”
We can usually cope with these hormonal changes in the short term, but if stress isn’t dealt with promptly it can cause problems. These include increased inflammation in the body and a weakened immune system, warns Debra. Chronic stress can even kill brain cells (opens in new tab).
“Cortisol spikes can trigger a surge in insulin, which can lead to us craving more sugary food (opens in new tab), while chronic stress can also lead to the production of noradrenaline, which can lead to poor sleep (opens in new tab), an irregular heartbeat, and higher blood pressure,” she adds. “Other hormones can also be released – causing an emotional rollercoaster in terms of mood swings, fatigue, and lower libido (opens in new tab).”
The result is myriad issues, from aches and pains to forgetfulness. If you are suffering from some of the following symptoms, learning how to manage stress should be your priority:
- Aches and pains
- Digestive problems
- Fatigue (opens in new tab)
- Feeling worried and overwhelmed
- Headaches (opens in new tab) or migraines (opens in new tab)
- High blood pressure
- Lack of focus
- Low libido
- Palpitations and/or panic attacks (opens in new tab)
- Poor diet
- Sleep disorders
How to manage stress: 12 tips from experts
If these symptoms sound all too familiar, you’re in a much stronger position if you learn some coping strategies and a few holistic, effective ways to deal with stress.
However, it’s also important to know that stress isn’t always a bad thing.
“Stress can be your friend,” says clinical psychologist and bestselling author Dr Julie Smith (opens in new tab). For example, she says, it helps us perform under pressure by increasing our level of alertness. “When we acknowledge what is does for us we don’t have to eliminate it. We can allow it to be present.”
While stress can indeed spur us on in challenging situations, if it becomes a constant in our life it can upset our equilibrium and make us more vulnerable to illness. Here are some expert suggestions that allow you to regain control.
1. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Therapy can make a huge difference, if you’re ready and willing to try it. Rather than opting for certain ‘talking cures’ where you delve deeply into past events and behaviour – a process that takes time – CBT is often recommended for stress because it provides practical steps that help us change our mindset relatively quickly.
“CBT is globally recognised as one of the most successful and broadly applicable therapeutic approaches, as well as one of the most intensely researched forms of therapy,” explains cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist Denise Iordache (opens in new tab). “The evidence (opens in new tab) base is staggering and overwhelmingly strong,” she says.
So, how does CBT ease stress and what does it involve? “CBT can help us manage stress better because of the emphasis placed on noticing patterns and learning how to develop new, practical, and more helpful coping strategies,” says Denise. She explains that people can expect 8-20 sessions over about six months. In between sessions individuals are given set exercises and experiments (basically, homework) to “challenge their existing way of thinking and behaving, develop new, more helpful coping skills, and ultimately drive long-term, sustainable change.”
Denise adds: “In a recent review of clinical articles, randomised controlled trials and other literature, the effectiveness of CBT was evaluated in stressful conditions among clinical and general populations. This review (opens in new tab) highlighted that CBT promotes more balanced thinking and improves our ability to cope with stress.” It doesn’t work for everyone, though, so if it’s not for you don’t be disheartened – there are other ways to learn how to manage stress.
A balanced lifestyle, we are told, should include a healthy diet, 7-9 hours sleep a night and exercise. All of these are good not only for our physical health but our mental health.
“Exercise and other physical activity can be the best way to reduce and manage stress,” says David Wiener, a training and nutrition specialist for fitness coaching app Freeletics (opens in new tab). In fact, studies such as this one (opens in new tab) have shown that just 20 minutes of physical activity (opens in new tab) three times a week can have a positive effect on stress, depression (opens in new tab), and anxiety. This activity can be cleaning or gardening – it doesn’t have to be exercise.
While exercise can’t ‘cure’ stress, it can help boost our body’s ability to utilise oxygen, improve blood flow, strengthen the immune system and help us release feel-good hormones such as endorphins and serotonin, says David – all of which work towards easing the physical and mental symptoms of stress. It also acts as a much-needed distraction.
“Exercise won’t make your stress disappear completely,” adds David. “But it will help to clear your head and allow for a more rational mindset.”
3. Prioritise sleep
Stress can also disrupt our sleep. If we sleep badly, we’re less able to cope with stressful situations, says research (opens in new tab), which can then create a vicious cycle of poor sleep and stress symptoms.
“Good sleep is essential for managing stress,” says Dr. Julie. “It only takes one terrible night’s sleep to affect your performance, mood, and concentration, so start placing sleep at the top of the priorities list.”
Prioritising sleep doesn’t begin as you get under the duvet – it starts in the evening. “It’s really important to make time to relax and wind down before bed, to eliminate some of the stress for the day,” says Lisa Artis (opens in new tab), deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity. “You can do a number of things to relax – whether that’s having a warm bath, knitting, drawing, relaxation exercises, reading, or listening to music. Some people find setting aside some time to write down feelings in a notepad is beneficial to clear the mind.”
Because stress causes hyperarousal, which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness, you then need to put a good sleep routine in place, says Lisa – starting with how you treat your sleep space. Your bedroom should only be used for sleep, and little else. “It’s not a place where you work, do chores or sort finances out – it needs to be a sanctuary,” she says.
Then you need to get into a routine. Routines (opens in new tab) are surprisingly good for stress, as they enable us to allocate a time and place for tasks, which can help us keep on top of responsibilities. “Follow a regular sleep routine, which helps to programme the body and mind to sleep better,” advises Lisa. This means allowing a certain amount of routine into your life – a bath, a warm drink, a book, then lights out at the same time every night – for example – will help re-set your body clock and calm an anxious mind.
4. Assess your diet
When we are stressed it can affect our eating patterns and what we choose to eat, resulting in us adopting poor habits and reaching for naughty but nice foods to relieve the pressure and momentarily distract us from worries.
If this happens to you, don’t be too hard on yourself, says registered dietitian Helen Bond (opens in new tab). “When you’re stressed your body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which not only make you feel hungrier, but can lead to comfort eating (opens in new tab),” she explains. “It’s not surprising that stressed spelled backwards is desserts!”
While the odd treat won’t do you any harm, eating too much refined, fatty or sugary food won’t help your symptoms. Helen recommends breaking the cycle of comfort eating by eating healthier food (opens in new tab) – namely, more protein and complex carbs. “Include adequate protein such as lean meat, oily fish, beans and pulses, eggs and low fat dairy products, and complex carbohydrates such as wholegrain, wholewheat, wholemeal varieties of cereal, bread, rice or pasta wherever possible,” she says.
“These foods release their energy slowly and will help keep your blood sugar levels stable, so you’re less likely to give in to emotional eating.” She also suggests replacing biscuits and other sugary treats with health snacks, such as nuts, seeds, hummus and tzatziki with crudities. While these sound dull in comparison to a chocolate bar, they’ll provide a steady stream of energy – not the blood sugar crash pastries and cakes provide.
It also pays to avoid the ultimate quick fix – coffee. “Too much caffeine can enhance feelings of stress and anxiety and interfere with your sleep,” warns Helen. She advises limiting your intake, opting for decaffeinated drinks (including soda) and drinking more herbal tea. Chamomile (opens in new tab), lavender (opens in new tab) and mint tea are all known to relieve symptoms associated with stress and anxiety.
5. Breathing exercises
Breathing comes so naturally that we’re not even aware we’re doing it – we do it between 20,000-22,000 times a day, after all. But stress can alter our breathing patterns and exacerbate symptoms, which is why knowing how to breathe through stress (opens in new tab) is so important.
So why does our breathing change? Again, it’s down to the fight or flight response, says Stuart Sandeman, a breathing coach, founder of Breathpod (opens in new tab)and author or Breathe In, Breathe Out (£13.99 WH Smith (opens in new tab)).
“This automate, primal response of the nervous system increases your breathing and heart rate to keep you safe,” says Stuart. “It’s something you are hardwired with. Your body and mind doesn’t know the difference between a threat in your environment, lets say a tiger, and a threat fabricated through your to do list – it triggers the same response,” he explains. “With conscious control of your breathing you can reverse this response to turn stress to calm.”
Stuart recommends that “if in doubt, breathe it out”. This is because “a long drawn-out breath will promote a calming response to your body and mind.”
If you want to know how to manage stress through breathing, Stuart suggests the following:
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of four – feeling your belly rise.
- Hold you breath for a count of four – keeping calm and still. Breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight, relaxing your shoulders, face and jaw.
- Repeat as required.
6. Find time for yoga
Yoga (opens in new tab)is a tried and tested technique for reducing stress and anxiety levels. As well as being around for millennia, numerous studies (opens in new tab) have found it to be an effective treatment for inducing calm – even more so than walking (opens in new tab). And contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be super bendy or fit – yoga can help people of all ages and fitness levels.
“Research has shown a yoga can bring us a multitude of benefits including that it can reduce stress and anxiety,” says yoga instructor Hannah Barrett (download her app (opens in new tab) or read her book Yoga Happy: Simple Tools and Practices for Everyday Calm and Strength (£15.43, Amazon (opens in new tab)). “Benefits can be harnessed not only through the physical practice of yoga poses but through the quieter practices like breath work, mindfulness and meditation,” she explains. “These can help us to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – our rest and digest system – bringing the nervous system back into balance.”
Hannah recommends practising asana (physical postures) to help you release tension, gain strength and flexibility, and reduce the risk of aches and pains. These moves also help to release our happy hormones (endorphins) that help combat stress.
Here, Hannah suggests two stress-relieving yoga poses: child’s pose and legs up the wall:
With child’s pose, kneel on a comfortable surface bringing the toes together and knees about hip-width apart. Lay the torso down between the knees and either reach the arms out in front or place them alongside the body. You can even place pillows under the torso for a super restorative version or bring the knees to touch and lay the arms back, releasing the fronts of the shoulders. Stay here for 5-10 breaths or however long needed.
For legs up the wall, on a comfortable surface bring the hips against a wall, with the upper body flat and the sit bones as close to the wall as is comfortable. Gently raise ether legs straight up, resting them against the wall. There’s an option to place a pillow under the sacrum and bend the knees if needed. Stay here ideally for 15 minutes or more for deep relaxation and restoration.
Poses are just one aspect of yoga. “An integral part of yoga is marrying the movements with your breath, helping to ground you in the present moment,” explains Hannah. “This enhances your awareness, boosts concentration, and can help to calm the mind.”
If you are new to yoga, it’s worth doing live online or in-person classes at first so you learn to breathe correctly while practicing the moves.
7. Try the Emotional Freedom Technique
The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is another practical suggestion that some health professionals suggest. If you want to know how to manage stress or anxiety naturally, this method requires some simple but specific tapping to relieve symptoms.
“Repetitive finger tapping [the basis of EFT] can sometimes help to release negative emotions,” says Steve Clarke, a psychotherapist and hospital director at Priory’s Roehampton Hospital (opens in new tab). “It’s been called a psychological version of acupuncture in that it involves making contact with a number of acupuncture points. The specific points to tap are the end-points of the major meridians – meridians are believed to be channels of subtle energy which flow through our body,” he explains.
Here’s how to try EFT, says Steve:
- Focusing on your negative emotion (e.g. stress), tap on a ‘meridian’ point – the eyebrow, side of the eye, under eye, under nose, chin, collarbone, under the arm and top of the head – 3-7 times, repeating your negative thought in your head.
- After each emotion, take a deep breath and exhale.
- Continue this until you feel calmer and relieved.
- When you feel more relieved, repeat the technique whilst you tap through a “positive round”, repeating more uplifting phrases. These can be affirmations such as ‘I am calm, I am not stressed any more.’
8. Practise mindfulness
Once regarded as a fad, mindfulness – the act of focusing the mind on the present – has more than proved its usefulness as a tool for treating mental health issues, including learning how to manage stress.
“The reason mindfulness is the NHS’ (opens in new tab) recommended ‘go to’ technique when we’re stressed out is quite simply because it works,” says Anna Richardson, an accredited cognitive hypnotherapist for Mindbox, (opens in new tab) which offers evidence-based techniques for managing stress and anxiety. “It’s so effective that the University of Oxford has set up its own dedicated Mindfulness Research Centre (opens in new tab) – where they’ve discovered in controlled trials that mindfulness meditation is a cost-effective approach to preventing depression, and a powerful alternative to antidepressants,” she says.
Mindfulness, continues Anna, isn’t just about “letting things go” by ignoring how we feel. “It’s a calm state of acceptance, regardless of whatever thought or feeling we may be experiencing,” she explains. “With regular practice, mindfulness teaches us to dial down the body’s response to stress – and researchers have discovered that it can even change the structure of the brain in the regions associated with attention and emotion regulation.”
Anna suggests the following exercise. If you like it and would like to learn more about mindfulness, it’s worth signing up to a class or getting an expert’s advice so you’re doing it correctly.
“The raisin exercise is as lovely 5 minute introduction to mindfulness meditation. As with all mindfulness practice, be sure to sit down in a quiet space, with no distractions,” says Anna.
1. Take one raisin, and place it in your right hand. Be prepared to explore this simple object with all of your senses, and without judgment. Maybe you love them, perhaps you loathe them – it doesn’t matter.
2. Focus on the raisin. Scan it, explore every part of it. Turn it around with your fingers and notice what colour it is. Notice the folds and where the surface reflects light or becomes darker. Next, explore the texture of it. If any thoughts come into your mind like ‘Why am I doing this?’ or ‘I hate raisins!’ then acknowledge these then bring your awareness back to the object.
3. Bring the raisin to your nose and notice the smell. Have you ever considered before that a raisin might smell?
4. Next… bring it up to your ear, squeeze it, roll it around, and hear if there’s any sound coming from it. Whatever you notice, just accept it with curiosity.
5. When you’re ready, slowly take the raisin to your mouth. Notice how the arm knows where to go. Perhaps you’re aware of your mouth watering. Gently place it on your tongue, without biting it. Explore the sensations of this object in your mouth.
6. Next, bite down intentionally. Notice the taste it releases as you slowly chew, and how this little dried fruit changes in consistency.
7. When you feel ready to swallow, consciously notice the intention to do so – before feeling all the sensations of this little object travelling down to your stomach.
8. What did you notice about the raisin when you experienced it with all five senses? Sight, touch, sound, smell, taste? What, if anything, surprised you about doing this exercise?
9. Before you go on with your day, take a moment to congratulate yourself for taking the time to come off automatic pilot and experience mindful eating.
10. If you enjoyed this technique, try applying it to other daily chores like brushing your teeth, or making a cup of tea. You’ll find that by just taking 5 minutes out of your day to approach mundane tasks mindfully, you’ll be on the right path to reducing your stress response and being a calmer person.
9. Get in touch with nature
Being in and around nature is another increasingly valued way to manage stress. The Japanese have been forest bathing (shinrin-yoku ) for decades and now research backs it up.
“Science shows we need to spend regular time in nature – ideally two hours or more (opens in new tab) every week – to regain and maintain our physiological and psychological status quo,” says Anthea Payne, founder of Forest Bathing Isle of Wight (opens in new tab).
“Nature prompts hormonal and chemical changes that positively influence our health and wellbeing. For example, levels of the stress hormone cortisol (opens in new tab) dramatically fall whilst in a natural environment,” she explains.
A plethora of scientific studies have revealed that many health conditions are positively affected by exposure to nature, including improved immunity, blood pressure, and cognitive function; regulated blood sugar levels and reduced cardiovascular disease. Even pain is positively affected, says Anthea, as well as concentration, creativity, depression, stress, anxiety and even ADHD in children (opens in new tab) she adds.
Indeed, forest bathing is so well-regarded that it’s now recommended as an activity in its own right. And it doesn’t matter how you spend time in nature – walking, cycling or camping all counts. “Forests can restore our balance and help us move from the ‘fight of flight’ state, one of anxiety and stress, to the ‘rest and digest’ state where we can find restoration and relaxation,” confirms Ellen Devine, wellbeing projects manager at Forestry England (opens in new tab).
If you are a city dweller who can’t get to a forest or into the countryside, a park with trees and greenery will still have an effect. Ellen says: “Put simply, nature makes us feel better.”
10. Reduce (or give up) alcohol
Many of us will reach for a glass of wine as a way of managing stress, but this isn’t necessarily what’s best for us.
“While a glass of wine can feel relaxing after a hard day, drinking too much or too frequently can make stressful feelings more intense – and will make you feel much worse in the long run, as it’s a depressant (opens in new tab),” says Helen. “Make sure you always stick to no more than 14 units of alcohol per week; spread across three days or more, and have some alcohol free days, too.”
This advice is echoed by Ruari Fairbairns, the CEO of One Year No Beer (opens in new tab). Not only do we reach for alcohol (opens in new tab) in times of stress, in many situations it’s the root cause of stress, he warns. For Ruari, taking a break from alcohol (opens in new tab) can be “transformational”. However, if you’re used to using booze as a crutch, this is easier said than done – though there are ways.
“You can space out your drinks using non-alcoholic beverages as spacers,” advises Ruari (if this is too hard at first, try low-alcohol drinks (opens in new tab), then wean yourself off those onto non-alcoholic options). “It’s always a good idea to drink water in between your alcohol beverages to slowly reduce consumption and train your brain to stay hydrated. It’s also wise to avoid your triggers – situations in which you are used to drinking. such as certain places and people. Avoiding these will prevent you drinking when you otherwise might not. Once you try techniques to reduce consumption, you’ll be able to learn how to say ‘no’ when someone offers you a drink.”
While this might sound difficult, the rewards can include feeling much less stressed. “Reducing and then cutting out your consumption impacts multiple areas of your life and brings a sense of calm,” says Ruari. “You will also see an increase in impulse control as well as all the hugely publicised benefits of losing weight, increased productivity and better sleep,” he says.
11. Take up a hobby
If you want to know how to manage stress in an enjoyable way, get a hobby. Not only are hobbies enjoyable, they focus the mind and distract us from our worries.
“Hobbies are incredibly mood-boosting and are a great way to support positive mental health,” says Hiba Binz, the founder of emberly (opens in new tab) – a self-development platform offering online courses. “They fuel happiness and give a sense of wellbeing because the act of taking part in something we love releases those all-important endorphins,” she explains. Not only that, they are a great opportunity to be creative and can be used as a form of self-expression, she adds.
Hobbies – whether it’s painting, gardening, playing piano or learning a language – can be a form of play, which studies (opens in new tab) have shown to reduce stress and encourage coping strategies. What’s more, they encourage us to be in the moment, which – like mindfulness – can be an incredibly helpful strategy for relieving stress. “Taking part in an activity requires concentration, which focuses the mind, keeping the participant in the moment. This has the added benefit of preventing the mind from ruminating and drifting to thoughts which may cause stress and anxiety,” says Hiba.
Volunteering is, perhaps, a less well-known way to manage stress, but a surprisingly effective one. According to research conducted in November 2021 by the Royal Voluntary Service (opens in new tab) 81% of the people asked said it improved their mental health and wellbeing, while a whopping 94% said it gave them a sense of purpose.
“I’ve seen first-hand how good volunteering is for our own mental health,” says Catherine Johnstone CBE, chief executive at the Royal Voluntary Service. “We’re social creatures and staying connected to our communities can do wonders for our wellbeing. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the measurable difference you have made to someone’s life through volunteering. Feeling fulfilled and taking pride in what you have done are incredibly positive feelings that can improve our state of mind long after we’ve finished the volunteering task at hand,” she explains.
Understanding how to manage stress
When it comes to learning how to manage stress, it’s pays to remember that everyone is different and what works for one person won’t work for another. Sometimes, stress will simply diminish or go away after a challenging period such as when a heavy workload ends, or when problems in a relationship are resolved.
“Everyone has their own levels of stress tolerance or emotional resilience, and this can be affected by many factors like the amount of sleep we have had, food we have eaten, if we have exercised, our relationships, work demands or family conflict,” says Debra. What’s important, she stresses, is to understand what your own signs and triggers are.
Preparation is also key to stress prevention, adds Steve. “Plan out your week or day ahead and create a checklist of things that need to be completed by priority,” he advises. “Give yourself enough time to complete each task and schedule regular breaks to avoid burnout.”
This golden nugget of wisdom is echoed by Dr Julie who recommends that you don’t work to exhaustion then take a holiday, as this can be too little too late. Prevention is better than cure so nip stress in the bud by taking small, good quality breaks every day, she advises. By following some of these suggestions, you can learn how to control stress before it controls you.
As well as offering online therapy and the free digital app My Possible Self to help you assess your stress level and monitor your mood, the Priory has a number of hospitals and wellbeing centres in England and Scotland, including the recently opened Priory Wimbledon Park Clinic in South London. Click here for locations (opens in new tab).
Debra (Debbie) Longsdale is a psychotherapist and clinical director of Priory’s private therapy services. She holds a Dip. in counselling children; PGDip. in Counselling Adolescents and Young People; Prof.Dip. in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT); and Prof.Dip. in Integrative Therapeutic Counselling.
Dr Julie Smith
Clinical psychologist and bestselling author Dr Julie Smith has a social media following of 4.3 million across TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.