How to handle stress

02 November 2022

MARK NIXON shares some insights and advice for managing stress – at work and home.

Wednesday 2nd November marks this year’s National Stress Awareness Day, an excellent opportunity to stimulate discussion around the risks, solutions, and prevention strategies for handling workplace stress. An awareness day may seem humorous – aren’t we all aware of our stress? However, this is a valuable chance to examine our situations and approach. We can all benefit from maintaining a healthy perspective and understanding of our own and colleagues’ stress.

What is Stress?

Another obvious question that has a value below a surface-level answer. We are all aware of how stress feels, its typical causes and some solutions to ease it. However, it is important to understand stress on a deeper and more personal level.

In some situations, such as fire or flood, stress is a highly useful tool and keeps us alert, motivated and ready to avoid danger. However, in most cases, is counterproductive. Therefore, always ask yourself the question: Is stress helpful or not helpful in this instance? Is this worth getting stressed about? Learn to recognise your personal ‘stress signs’. These are different for everyone, but it is important to avoid the use of maladaptive coping mechanisms. They could include alcohol and other drugs or stimulants, eating, spending money, anger, procrastination, withdrawal, risk-taking or gambling to name a few. Whilst appearing to relieve symptoms in the short term, maladaptive coping generally makes things worse. When considering stress, what is important is understanding what stress is to you, what causes you the most difficulty and what symptoms and warning signs can you or your colleagues and loved ones look out for?

Stress at Work

If the root of a problem is work-related, an employer should complete a ‘Stress Risk Assessment’. This should be based on the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Stress Management Standards, which review whether the leading causes are demands, control, role, relationships, support, or change. In addition, HSE’s Talking Toolkit is a valuable resource detailing a conversational approach to the six aforementioned standards.

So how should you deal with stress?

There are lots of ways to deal with stress, both at work and in personal situations. In the short term, focus on calming the body and bringing down your heartrate. For example, try to steady your breathing, exhaling more than inhaling or holding your breath for a count. Walking away from a situation is sometimes necessary to avoid making a situation worse. It also presents an opportunity to assess the cause of any stress objectively. This short-term approach will, of course, not work in all scenarios, but it’s an excellent first step to help consider your next actions.

Does the situation require a solution? For example, getting a new job or paying a large bill. In this case, the problem must be dealt with rather than avoided. This might be easier said than done and feel hopeless in the moment. Try to work out the sequence of steps required to resolve the situation and focus on working through each step individually. If you cannot do this on your own, where you can request help. Does your workplace have an employee assistance programme?

When a stressor is less solution-oriented, such as losing a loved one, the focus should be on healthy coping methods, which involves managing how we feel. Below are a few tips and insights to help handle this process. Remember, we are all different and will require unique approaches and varying amounts of time:

  • Confide – Talking to others about our problems can help us ‘come to terms’ with a situation. Putting our emotional experience into words can help us mentally resolve issues that can’t be solved. Consider speaking to family, friends or even colleagues. Talking therapy or a relevant support group may also be a viable option.

  • Socialise – Stress can make us isolate ourselves from others, so try to remain social when possible. Being around other people makes us feel better, so seek out supportive friends and spend time with loved ones. Discussions about shared passions can help alleviate stress and shift focus to more positive aspects of our lives.

  • Get Active – Exercise produces five of the seven neurochemicals of happiness, including serotonin, the substance which antidepressants alter artificially.  Physical activity is also goal-oriented and helps us feel good about achieving something. Outdoor activity puts us in touch with nature and can aid socialisation, giving a better perspective and a sense of control.

  • Relax - Stress borrows blood from the digestive process, where 90% of the immune system resides and subsequently reduces the effectiveness of the body’s natural defences. There is a direct relationship between gut activity and an anxious mental state. Performing relaxation exercises can stimulate the body’s ‘rest and digest’ response, helping ease stress and any physical strain on the gut processes.

  • Sleep – Quality and frequency of sleep are affected by stress. Try to practice good sleep hygiene and relaxation methods, such as breathing techniques, yoga and reading to help calm the mind and body before bed. This will aid the sleep process and combat stress and cortisol levels.

  • Diet - There is a growing body of evidence suggesting gut health is key to all aspects of our wellbeing. Eating healthier foods, particularly fruits, vegetables, and other fibre-rich foods, helps protect our guts and improve the immune system. Ninety-five percent of the body’s serotonin, our main mood molecule, is also found there!

  • Perspective – Our brains tend to have a negativity bias, so it’s easy to become preoccupied and stressed. It’s important to keep a mental or even written note of positive things and events throughout our day to maintain perspective. Life is rarely entirely negative. Ask yourself: “what went well today?”

Difficult things happen in everyone’s life, but how we respond to these situations makes the difference between those who cope well and those who don’t. 

Keep things in perspective, choose healthier and more helpful coping mechanisms and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

About the Author:

Mark Nixon is senior occupational health and safety consultant, is a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and author of Arco’s suite of Stress and Mental Wellbeing Management courses, which can be found here: Course Detail Page | Arco Professional Safety Services (