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Dealing with stress

Stress is one of those words we use so often it has almost lost its meaning.

When was the last time you heard, “I’m so stressed out”, “I’m stressed to bits”, or “my head is wrecked”? Chances are, it wasn’t too long ago.

When young people come to Jigsaw with feelings of stress, we assure them that it’s not possible to completely rid your life of stress.

But, it is possible to better manage, and reduce your stress. Stress is your body trying to tell you something so learning to listen to it is a good start.

What is stress?

Stress is a signal that our body or mind gives us to let us know that something is not great and needs to be looked at.

For pre-historic or early humans, stress appeared in response to a serious danger or a threat, like meeting a tiger while hunting for food. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol gave us the boost we needed to deal with the predator: either ‘fight or flight ‘.

Our bodies still respond to a threat in the same way today, even though the tiger has been replaced by a maths exam or a row with our boyfriend/girlfriend. Stress can cause a physical reaction: our body gets tense and our heart rate speeds up.

Is stress always a bad thing?

Stress isn’t always a bad thing. In fact a little bit of stress can be helpful. The caveman can run away from the tiger, and you get the energy boost to tackle two hours of trigonometry questions.

But too much stress can also cause us to freeze; the caveman pretends to be dead when he meets that tiger because he can’t out-run it. For you, there’s a big exam in a few days and all you can do is stare at the cover of your books. You’re frozen in indecision because you don’t know where to start, so to briefly get away from the stress you look at YouTube instead.

Stress rarely appears alone. You might also be feeling down, anxious, angry, irritable, overwhelmed or overloaded. Stress can leave us lacking motivation and make it difficult to concentrate.

Often young people tell us it's hard to pinpoint why they are stressed. They say “there’s too much going on” or “I don’t know where to start”.

What causes stress

If we can’t identify what’s stressing us out, then we don’t feel able to change anything.

It’s rare we are stressed about just one thing. It’s usually a combination of things at the one time that are difficult to manage, such as:

  • Exams or pressure from teachers or our parents/guardians
  • Arguments at home or a chaotic house
  • Worries or stress about friends or friendship groups.

Stress can build up and affect our body and mind. Your thoughts become ‘I can’t manage what is being asked of me’.

Discover what is really bothering you

Getting in tune with yourself is the first and essential step to dealing with stress.

Think of stress as an alert telling you that there are some parts of your life that might need changing. To defuse this alert, you’ll need to work out what’s triggering it. This sounds simple, but often we are unaware (or afraid to admit) how much a relationship, job, person, or lifestyle is stressing us.

Sometimes when people are stressed they'll get really self-critical and think ‘oh I have to do this all on my own. I should be doing better’ where as it really is a time to show some compassion to yourself

Jigsaw clinician

Be your own stress detective

You might notice you get stressed to and from college. Is it a particular person you see there, or a class that you dread going to? If it’s a class, is it the subject itself you’re finding difficult, or is it the lecturer who makes passive-aggressive comments when you ask a question? If it’s a person, ask yourself why you are so affected by them and how you can better protect yourself when you’re around them.

If you feel overwhelmed and are convinced that everything is stressing you out, get yourself a special notebook. Record everything you do throughout the day, and next to it write down how stressed you feel on a rating of one to 10.

Patterns will emerge after a few days. You might discover that it is deadlines or exams always set you off, or dealing with a certain person, or on weeks where you have no day off between work and study.

There is no magic bullet for stress, but there are many ways to help you manage and defuse it.

Tips for dealing with stress

Talk it out

Saying out loud how you’re feeling to someone else can make a huge difference. This could be with a friend, parent, counselor or teacher. They don’t have to have all the answers ( in fact, they probably won’t), but talking about what’s stressing you will help you find your own solutions.

Write it all down

This might seem daunting, but your problems will seem a lot less overwhelming when they’re all out on the page. You can keep a journal, or burn the pages afterwards if you really want to.

Break things down into manageable chunks

Maybe your room has been in a mess for months and it just seems too much to manage. If you get a to-do list and write ‘clean room’, it’ll be too daunting to even start. Instead, start with something manageable, like ‘do washing’, or ‘de-clutter desk’.

Achieving a simple task (and ticking it off the to-do list) gives us a little boost. This often reduces our stress and motivates us to tackle another manageable task. Before we know it, what once seemed like a task too big to start, is done.

Watch that inner voice

Notice how you talk to yourself. Make sure you’re not being overly critical, which will make you more stressed.

Find time – and ways – to relax

There are countless ways to unwind your body and mind; find out what works for you and schedule it into your week. It could be running, flicking through a magazine, deep breathing, or colouring books. No matter how busy we are, we all need downtime.