Managing stress in the modern world

White curve
Managing stress in today's world

Stress - the feeling of emotional or physical tension, often in reaction to circumstances and surroundings - is by no means new. It’s also not necessarily always a bad thing.

Yet we all live in extremely stressful times, especially during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. It’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed and for negative emotions to dominate our lives.

So how can we all better manage the ‘stressors’ of modern life? What impact does our environment have on how we feel? And what steps can we take to look after both our bodies and our minds?

Sarah Ashworth, Director of our Schools & Families Programme, explores the importance of understanding and normalising stress in the 21st century, particularly in the context of Covid-19 and the impact that the pandemic is having on all of our lives. In this helpful video, we also consider some of the strategies that may help you to manage stress and build positive mental health and wellbeing going forward.

We hope you can find the time to watch the full webinar. If not, we’ve summarised the key parts below for you.

Two people sat outside with a sunrise
What is ‘good mental health’? (01:20)

It’s really important first to be clear: mental health is not just the absence of mental disorder. We all have a state of mental health which fluctuates over time in the same way that our physical health fluctuates - it can be impacted, both positively and negatively, by many different factors.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, with the ability to cope with the normal stresses of life. An individual with good mental health can work productively and fruitfully, and make a positive contribution to her or his community.

Normal is the point of emphasis here, especially against the unsettling and unpredictable backdrop of 2020.

Historically, our ancestors’ main stress factors revolved around the need for food, shelter, safety and relationship - essential for their tribe and future prosperity. 10,000 years ago, our ancestors were unable to think about complex problems when they were threatened - and neither are we, all these years later in the fast-paced 21st century.

The evolution of stress (3:14)

The brains and bodies of our caveman ancestors, when faced with a threat, reacted. The sympathetic nervous system was triggered; key areas of the brain responded and the adrenal glands released stress hormones including adrenalin and cortisol. As blood pressure and heart rate increased, pupils dilated and muscles tensed up, our ancestors’ bodies prepared themselves to survive: to fight, flight, freeze or flop.

After the danger passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicked in. Their bodies returned to a calm, alert state: the immune system restored itself, breathing slowed down, circulation improved and digestion was restored - all the human body’s clever way of creating the ability for our ancestors to once again rest and recuperate.

10,000 years ago, this was normal life. Now, in 2020, stress is experienced very differently.

Our expectations, these days, are much more complex. From our early days in education, we face pressure at being labelled either a ‘failure’ or a ‘success’ - pressure that many of us carry with us throughout our lives. We strive to be the best, to get a good job and really enjoy life: buying a house and nice car, travel the world, look a particular way and fall in love, ultimately achieving true happiness. Or so we are led to believe.

Yet when the reality doesn’t match the expectations, we may feel that something is wrong - with others, with the world, or even with ourselves.

The ‘normal’ stressors of modern life (6:47)

The stressors that we face today are far more complex than those faced by our ancestors - especially in 2020.

Many argue that social media has a negative impact on wellbeing, yet right now it’s one of the few ways we can safely stay in contact with those we love and with the wider world. Social media is not all bad; it’s the way that we use it, and how much focus we place on building digitally-healthy households, that can have a positive or negative effect on our wellbeing.

Mobile phones are an essential part of modern life, yet spending too much time glued to our devices (at the expense of other activities) can have an adverse impact on our wellbeing. Notifications and endless digital opportunities demand our attention and are hard to resist, especially during times of ‘lockdown’ restrictions.

When stressed, it’s easy to reach for addictive substances that make us feel better in the very short-term: alcohol, caffeine and highly-processed junk food, to name but a few.

We also sleep less these days than at any point in history, even though we all know how vital it is to get a good night’s sleep. The use of electronic devices, the allure of 24/7 instant access entertainment and any concerns that may be worrying us all affect our sleep - as does the ‘doom and gloom’ of negative news cycles; countless voices weighing in on the uncertainty and anxiety around the world today, and the Government’s response to an unprecedented crisis. It all adds up and impacts us, leading to a physiological stress response akin to our ancestors’ response; our brainpower is directed towards escape, yet we can’t easily escape from modern stressors.

The environment’s impact on our stress levels (09:20)

Stress in our environment affects us not only physically, but it also impacts our emotions and the way we think and behave. Our ‘environment’ can include the family we cohabit with, our cultural surroundings, where we study or work and even the weather.

The current global environment is unsettling for many; societal changes, family stress, long periods of isolation and social distancing and job/study uncertainty all combine to create a great deal of ongoing stress.

Yet the past also has a role to play in how we feel and behave: our successes, setbacks, losses, as well as the support or criticism we’ve received from others all influence how we respond to stressful situations and behave in the face of adversity.

We all differ in our capacity to manage stress. Our individual genetics, lifestyle and diet all make a difference, alongside our past experiences and upbringings.

It can be helpful to consider your stress levels as a ‘bucket’. Some of us have a large bucket, capable of holding a lot before overflowing. Others have a much smaller bucket, which will be full to the brim sooner. We are all different. Yet we can all incorporate coping strategies (imagine a tap on the side of the bucket) to deal with stress, whatever our capacity.

Not all stress is bad (11:58)

We need a certain amount of stress in our lives. Cortisol, the stress hormone, wakes us up in the morning and gets us ready to embrace the day.

Optimal levels of stress actually enhance our performance, taking us from an under stimulated state of being to a level of alertness that’s necessary to achieve our goals in life. Stress allows us to face the challenges of the day: we are able to perform at our best, to be sharp and to be focused.

Yet when stress gets too much for us and goes unchecked, we can find ourselves feeling panicked, fatigued and exhausted.

The power of our thinking on stress (12:40)

William Shakespeare once famously said “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

The thoughts running through our heads, which we’re often unaware of, are hugely influential in terms of whether we perceive a situation to be positive or negative.

We are hard-wired to turn our attention towards perceived threats. We are also more likely to think negatively when we are stressed. Faced with a crisis like Covid-19, it’s natural to think “It’s all too much” and “I can’t cope”. Negative thinking is a normal response.

Yet left unchecked, negative thought patterns can leave to changes in our behaviour that can cause big problems. This can include:

  • FIGHT: Becoming more irritable and prone to emotional outbursts
  • FLIGHT: Avoiding difficult situations and procrastinating over tasks and decisions
  • FREEZE: Compulsive checking of social media, emails and news outlets
  • FLOP: Withdrawal, inactivity and low mood.
Promoting wellbeing: the three essential paths to wellness (15:03)

There are many steps that we can take to effectively manage stress and promote our own wellbeing.

The human body is remarkable - and far more complex than any machine invented. And just like a machine, it runs better if it is looked after properly.

EAT WELL: The brain and body need the right kind of fuel for mental wellbeing and the immune system. Highly processed ‘junk’ food contributes to poorer mental health and immune function; a little is fine but moderation is the key. Eating a ‘rainbow’ of foods regularly is recommended in order to benefit from a range of essential vitamins and minerals, supported by drinking plenty of water (ideally, 6-8 glasses a day) - even slight dehydration leads to increased anxiety.

REGULAR MAINTENANCE: Exercise is crucial to both our wellbeing and for a well-functioning immune system. The best form of exercise should be something you can do, will do, and may actually enjoy!

SLEEP WELL: Many of us find sleep difficult, yet it’s so vital. Keeping to a regular sleep schedule makes a big difference, as does avoiding caffeine later in the day and having sufficient exposure to daylight and essential Vitamin D. A personal ‘wind down’ routine is recommended, such as a warm bath before bed, reading in bed, and avoiding electronic devices for at least 90 minutes before bedtime wherever possible.

Are you a good friend to yourself? (20:02)

The internal dialogue we engage in throughout the day can influence our stress levels - and our thoughts tend to be more negative when we’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. After a difficult day, it’s easy to give yourself a hard time, criticising your performance or comparing yourself to others.

Negative thinking can all too easily become a habit. Would you talk to someone you really cared about in such a harsh way? Probably not. Being self-critical when stressed only leads to greater levels of stress.

The STOPP approach can help to transform negative self-talk:

STOP - As soon as you notice you’re feeling tense, stressed or overwhelmed, stop what you’re doing

TAKE A BREATH - Spend a few moments focusing on your breathing: take a deep breath, hold and release

OBSERVE - Ask gently and without judgement: What am I thinking? What am I reacting to? What am I feeling?

PULL BACK - See the bigger picture and put the situation in some perspective. Is this fact or opinion?
Find what works for you, either now or in the past, and focus on practicing this.

Positive self-talk, especially during current times, can look like this:

“I’m finding it hard, but so are most people right now. I’m doing my best; these are tough times!

“I notice I am having negative thoughts. That’s normal. I am OK.

If we are able to accept our negative thoughts and feelings, we might find that they reduce in frequency and intensity. Being a good, compassionate friend to yourself isn’t easy: it takes time, patience and practice. But it’s worth it. You are worth it.

Wellbeing 5-A-Day (24:10)

There are five steps that we can all take to promote our wellbeing and reduce stress.

CONNECT: This is how our ancestors survived, and it’s as important now as it was then. Feeling connected to others helps our immune function, and while there are significant limitations right now to how we connect with others, find ways to share experiences with friends, family, colleagues and those in your local community.

BE ACTIVE: Exercise should be something that you can do, will do and that you enjoy. Most importantly, don’t overdo it but try and commit to daily exercise - in whatever form feels right to you.

TAKE NOTICE: Bring yourself back to the present moment by appreciating nature and practicing mindfulness. Grounding yourself in the here-and-now focuses the mind away from thinking about things from the past, ruminating on mistakes and worrying about the future. A digital detox can be a good way to focus on the present; try and take a walk out in nature without the constant pings of notifications and see how that makes you feel.

KEEP LEARNING: Seeking out new knowledge and experiences makes us feel good. From studying online courses to figuring out how things work and even exploring more about yourself and ways of coping, all learning is positive.

GIVE: Giving your time, attention or support to someone else shifts the focus away from yourself and away from negative thought patterns. It’s also equally important to give to, and reward, yourself.



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