What is International Stress Awareness Week?
International Stress Awareness Week is a major stress management event held annually. The day aims to reduce the stigma associated with stress and encourage open dialogue about mental health issues.
International Stress Awareness Week is organised by the International Stress Management Association (ISMA), which is the leading body for stress management and wellbeing in the world. The organisation has branches in 7 countries that seek to promote:
- Raise the profile of stress-related issues in the home and workplace.
- Tackle the stigma associated with personal stress and symptoms.
- Change the attitudes towards the management of stress in the workplace.
Why is International Stress Awareness Week Important?
Recognising the detrimental impact of stress on our daily lives and mental health is more important than ever. The nation’s mental health and sense of community have been severely impacted by the pandemic. We have experienced significant disruptions to our social lives because of lockdowns, the cancellation of major events, travel limitations, and working from home. Although restrictions around the world have largely been lifted and the world seems to have mostly returned to normal, many people report finding it difficult to recover from the emotional, financial, and social toll the pandemic took on their lives.
The residual stress left by the aftermath of the pandemic has only been compounded by the cost-of-living crisis, talks of a recession, political instability, the climate crisis, and the war in Ukraine. This is causing a mental health crisis in the UK and abroad, with around 74% of us reporting having been so stressed that we felt unable to cope in the last year.
The theme of this year’s International Stress Awareness Week is Working Together to Build Resilience and Reduce Stress.
What is stress?
Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. When you are stressed, your body releases stress hormones such as cortisol.
Stress is the body’s reaction to help you deal with pressure or threats. This is sometimes called a ‘fight or flight’ response. Your stress hormones usually return to normal once the pressure or threat has passed.
What are the signs of stress?
International Stress Awareness Week promotes the fact that there is no universal sign for stress because it presents differently in different people. There are some common symptoms of stress, and these vary in severity from person to person. It is also possible for you to experience several symptoms at once.
- Increased anxiety
- Lack of confidence
- Mood swings
- Stomach problems
- Muscle tension
- A sense of dread
- Feeling low
- Being forgetful
- Imagining the worst
- Muscle aches
- Feeling irritable
- Racing thoughts
- Going over and over things in your head
- Making mistakes
- Not eating
- Problems sleeping
- Drinking excessively
What causes stress?
The truth is that almost anything can cause stress. Even situations that are otherwise considered positive such as becoming a parent or buying a house can cause immense stress.
Some people are more susceptible to stress than others. This will depend on several factors, including your home life, your work, your childhood, and your personality. This is why some situations that will not bother you at all may feel absolutely crippling to others.
There are certain circumstances and factors that are generally associated with stress:
- Experiencing abuse
- Difficult or strained relationships with others
- Experiencing a break-up or divorce
- Starting a new job
- Food insecurity
- Housing problems
- Experiencing discrimination or prejudice
How to self-manage stress?
International Stress Awareness Week emphasises that taking care of your overall wellbeing is crucial when dealing with bouts of stress. Trying different techniques to manage stress may help to alleviate symptoms and help us recover more quickly after a stressful event. It is important to remember that different things work for different people.
We should also be mindful of the fact that some activities that may have worked to ease our stress in the past may no longer have the same impact they once did. Looking after your wellbeing is an ongoing process that will constantly develop and change throughout your life. This is why it is so important to routinely check in with yourself to see how you are doing, and what makes you happy, so that you can implement effective and comforting strategies that help you cope with stress.
- Be kind to yourself – This is easier said than done and often requires some practice. However, learning to be kinder and more patient with yourself can help reduce the negative self-talk that can exacerbate even the smallest of stresses.
- Keep active – Exercise will not eliminate stress, but it can reduce some of the emotional heaviness you are feeling and help to clear your thoughts.
- Get enough sleep – One of the main symptoms of stress is difficulty sleeping. Not getting enough sleep can cause problems that worsen the feelings of stress such as poor concentration, anxiety, low mood, and nausea.
- Eat a balanced diet – Stress may make you want to eat more than you usually do or nothing at all, but maintaining a balanced diet will help to keep your energy up and stabilise your mood. Trying to get as much sleep as possible is important for you to feel more capable of handling stressful situations.
- Develop a support network – A solid support network of friends, family, and colleagues can help you navigate stressful times and help you see things in a different way. Hanging out with other people can help us relax and distract ourselves from any immediate stress factors in our lives.
- Avoid unhealthy habits – Sometimes it may feel like alcohol, drugs, smoking, and caffeine help to ease the symptoms of stress, but the truth is that they only offer temporary relief. These unhealthy coping mechanisms will not solve your problems — they will just create new ones.
- Try to find time to relax – Many of us have extremely busy lives that make taking a break seem impossible. However, taking a short break to clear your mind may help to change your perspective on the stressful event and give you some valuable emotional respite.
- Try to maintain a positive outlook – Take stock of all the good things in your life and the things you are grateful for. When you are feeling stressed, it is hard to remember that our lives are not all doom and gloom. Reminding yourself of this may help ease the burden of stress and let you see the light at the end of the tunnel.
- Do something nice for yourself every day – Our lives are full of commitments and obligations (e.g. deadlines and events). Sometimes it is important to do things because we want to and not because we have to. This may include going for a walk, watching a film, or going for coffee with a friend.
Should I go to the doctor if I am stressed?
Periods of intense stress usually pass after some time or after a solution to a stressful situation has been found. There are certain circumstances that may warrant seeking professional support for stress management:
- You are struggling to do day-to-day activities.
- You are finding it hard to look after yourself.
- You feel the need to take time off work.
- You are using drugs or alcohol to cope.
- You have felt hopeless for several weeks.
- You have had suicidal thoughts.
- You are struggling to enjoy things.
- You are having panic attacks.
Your GP may be able to recommend self-advice techniques, but also refer you to stress management classes or therapies that can equip you with the tools to manage stress better.
How can friends or families help those struggling with stress?
Knowing someone who is struggling with stress can be difficult. In many cases, relatives and friends may be able to detect that a person is stressed before they can. This may include changes in behaviour or simply having a hunch that something is not quite right.
You may find it hard to help them if you do not have the power to change the situation that is causing them stress. Just because you cannot change their circumstances does not mean you are unable to help.
- Listen to how they feel
- Show empathy
- Provide reassurance
- Help to distract them
- Help them identify their triggers
- Encourage them to seek support
It is important to remember that sometimes just offering an ear to listen can be enough to make someone feel less alone and their stress more manageable.
What can I do as an employer to help staff struggling with stress?
As an employer, you have a vested interest in the overall performance of your workforce. Making the health and wellbeing of your employees a priority will boost morale and productivity as a result of increased staff satisfaction. Reducing stress levels amongst staff will also play a role in minimising stress-related absences that can have a knock-on effect on workloads in the company.
There are various steps you can take as an employer to reduce stress in the workplace:
- Communicate openly and empathetically with employees
- Introduce a wellness scheme (e.g. arranging discount at local gyms or organising staff sports matches)
- Promote work/life balance to prevent burnout
- Allow flexible hours and hybrid working
- Encourage social activity
- Set clear goals and realistic expectations
- Recognise your employees’ achievements
Employee happiness is a fundamental, yet sometimes overlooked, part of maintaining a successful company.
How can I take part in International Stress Awareness Week?
There are many ways that you can take part in the day, be it by attending one of the virtual summits or by organising a stress awareness seminar at your place of work.
International Stress Awareness Week reminds us that stress is part of the universal human experience. This means that the best way to honour stress awareness initiatives is to simply speak openly and compassionately about the subject.