Mark Topps
November 19, 2021

Mark Topps

How to identify and manage stress

Part of our ‘Let’s talk about…’ mental health and wellbeing series

Welcome to my new column, ‘Let’s talk about…’, looking at mental health and wellbeing within the social care sector. Each month, I’ll be shining a light on a different topic and giving my advice on what’s worked for me and my colleagues, and what support is available to help you look after yourselves. So, let’s get straight to it…

What is stress?

Stress affects us all and is a feeling of being under abnormal pressure. Working in social care it’s safe to say, we all feel stressed at some point in our careers! From budgets and finances, bereavement, shift cover and disputes with colleagues, to dealing with disciplinary matters, managing behaviour that challenges and even something as simple as having a different viewpoint to that of a colleague.

Some of these stress factors may cause a knock-on impact which can lead to build-up of cumulative stress which is difficult to manage. Stress affects each of us differently and for some, can affect the way they behave.

Key signs of stress

Physical signs

  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Stomach problems
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Feeling tired or dizzy
  • Sexual problems / changes to libido
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Dry mouth
  • Shortness of breath

Mental signs

  • Worrying about the future or past
  • Imagining the worst
  • Being forgetful
  • Lack of concentration
  • Feeling irritable
  • Racing thoughts
  • Going over and over things in your mind
  • Making mistakes
  • Feeling low

Behavioural signs

  • Crying
  • Eating more or less
  • Biting your nails
  • Avoiding others
  • Sleep problems
  • Rushing tasks
  • Drinking or smoking more
  • Being irritable
  • Being snappy

This list isn’t exhaustive in the least, so it’s important to recognise how stress affects you so that you can keep an eye out and seek help and advice, as needed.

Managing stress

There are several different methods of support to manage stress but unfortunately, there’s not a one size fits all model as each of us is different. So, it’s important to find what works for you.

Keep a diary

A diary can be used in multiple ways. For some, writing a diary at the end of each day helps them to identify factors that caused stress and/or upset, what’s happened each day and identify what they would change.

Many look back on their period of stress to reflect, identify triggers and learn how to cope with them going forward.

Try to budget

Financial worries can lead to many different issues, including poverty, debt and relationship problems, all of which can be highly stressful. There are a number of places where you can get support if you’re worried about your finances. Some people find keeping a budget sheet can help. Here are some examples:

Plan your time

Being able to manage and plan your time, can help you feel more in control of your life and things that are happening. Things I’ve found helpful include:

  • Writing a list of things that I need to do
  • Ordering the list by priority (a traffic light system is super handy!) Try not to put off green tasks as they can quickly become more urgent, and break down larger tasks into smaller, manageable ones
  • Delegating and sharing tasks, utilising the skills of my colleagues and team. Many managers and leaders struggle to do this, but it’s crucial to learn to help effectively manage your time
  • Asking for help
  • Giving myself the thinking space to plan and do my work.

Don’t forget to reward yourself and celebrate even the smallest wins, as this can help motivate and inspire you!

Talk to somebody

I can’t stress how important it is to talk to someone, whether that’s a friend, family member or a colleague. Remember the famous saying, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. Talking with someone you know and feel comfortable with can help you to offload your worries.

Some people prefer to speak to someone they don’t know, like a counsellor. There are several organisations that offer independent and confidential support:

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)

Provide free and impartial information and advice to employers and employees about workplace relations and employment law, including the Equality Act 2010.

Citizens Advice Bureau

Offer free, confidential, impartial and independent advice. They advise on benefits, housing, debt and other issues.

  • Website
  • 034 4411 1444 (England)
  • 034 4477 2020 (Wales)
National Debtline

Provide free, independent and confidential advice about debt.

Shelter

A housing and homelessness charity offering specialist advice on a range of housing issues.

StepChange

Provide free, confidential advice and support to anyone worried about debt.

Samaritans

Available 24 hours a day. They provide confidential support for people in emotional distress.

Sane

UK mental health charity aiming to improve the quality of life of anyone affected by mental illness, including family friends and carers.

Support Line

Offer help to people on any issue. They provide non-judgemental, confidential support and advice to help you to find ways of coping with a particular problem.

Relate

A charity who provide relationship counselling.

Eat a balanced diet and get some sleep

It’s important to limit your caffeine intake towards the end of the day (coffee, tea, energy drinks and even chocolate) as this can help you to sleep better. A balanced diet is good for your mental and physical health and according to the NHS’ Eatwell Guide, people should try to:

  • Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables
  • Base meals on high fibre foods such as potatoes, bread, pasta or rice
  • Have dairy (or an alternative such as soya)
  • Eat pulses, fish, beans, eggs, meat and other proteins
  • Choose unsaturated oils and spreads (in small amounts)
  • Drink plenty of fluids (aim for 6 to 8 glasses a day).

Try practising good sleep hygiene, like having a regular bedtime routine, making sure the area you sleep in is dark, tidy and comfortable and minimise screen time before bed.

If you’re still having trouble sleeping, I’d recommend you seek professional advice from a doctor.

Regularly exercise

Exercise can help to relieve stress and stay healthy. If you’re not into the gym or going for a run, try doing some gardening or housework.

Access online resources

Mental health, stress and burnout are spoken about more now than ever before. There are several online resources you can make use of include:

Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is a type of meditation to help you to be aware of the present moment and pay attention to it. This can help to deal with symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety. You may be able to find online mindfulness courses through YouTube or apps such as Headspace, Calm and Aura. Even Netflix and Amazon Prime have mindfulness series to help unwind and relax.

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation can help you to deal with stress. Some people relax using meditation, aromatherapy or yoga.

Seek medical advice

It’s important that you seek medical advice and speak to your doctor if you’re struggling to cope with any of the following:

  • You’re struggling to do everyday things
  • You’ve stopped looking after yourself
  • You’re taking more time off work
  • You’ve thought that life is not worth living
  • You’re using drugs or alcohol to cope with how you feel
  • You’ve felt very low or hopeless for 2 weeks or more
  • You no longer enjoy anything
  • You’re having panic attacks.

Your doctor should be able to offer you advice, stress management class referrals, talking therapy, medication, support groups in your local area and much more.

Make time for yourself

This is probably the most important step!

Take time for yourself and be aware of when you need a break. Working in social care is hard work and is both physically and mentally draining. We often keep going, not recognising when we’re tired or burnt out until it’s too late.

So, I’d recommend you schedule time in your diary each day to do something for you, something that makes you feel relaxed or happy and secure at that time. Make sure nothing interrupts it, no one changes it and that you utilise this time. For me, it’s spending time with my children, having time not being an adult, but with them, messing around, having a water fight, playing with dolls and having a game of hide and seek or chase. In the evenings it’s watching a film or reading a good book.

What next?

My challenge to you is to spend 30 minutes doing something that makes you happy. Be it talking to a friend over a cuppa or reading that book you’ve been meaning to start.

Set the time aside and stick with it!