Coping with stress and anxiety

What is stress?

  • Stress is an everyday term that is used when you feel overwhelmed with the pressures of everyday life, or if you are faced with a situation that makes you feel anxious.
  • Stress is not always a bad thing. It is an inevitable part of everyday life and you need a degree of stress to make you perform well. Stress is your body's natural way of preparing you to deal with physical or emotional demands: good or bad.
  • Stress triggers the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream which increases the heart rate and oxygen levels to the heart and muscles. These physical reactions help the body cope when faced with a 'dangerous' situation, but can also cause the symptoms that make you feel anxious and stressed.

Stress has not been proven to cause heart disease. However, when it begins to affect your health, e.g. tension pains in the neck or back, disturbed sleep or increased anxiety, stress can become a trigger for unhelpful behaviours such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, eating poorly and not getting enough physical activity.

These behaviours can increase your risk of heart disease. To make the necessary lifestyle changes that may reduce your risk of heart disease it is important to be well motivated and to learn to reduce, and control, the amount of stress in your life and to recognise if you are down or possibly depressed.

Recognising stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety can affect people in many different ways, physically, emotionally and behaviourally. It's possible to mistake symptoms of anxiety for illness. Learning to recognise your symptoms will help you to control them and understand what is actually happening.

Ways that anxiety can affect you include: 

Possible physical symptoms include: Possible emotional problems include: Possible effects on behaviour include:
  • Headaches
  • Stomach problems
  • Sweating
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Bowel and / or bladder problems
  • Breathlessness and / or palpitations
  • Dry mouth
  • Tingling in body
  • Sexual problems


  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling anxious or tense
  • Feeling low
  • Feeling of apathy
  • Feeling low in self esteem
  • Temper outbursts
  • Over drinking and / or smoking
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Withdrawing from usual activities
  • Being unreasonable
  • Being forgetful and / or clumsy
  • Rushing around



The symptoms of panic do not mean that you are going mad. They do, however, make you more tired. Being anxious and tense is a serious drain on your energy. Once you have learned how to manage anxiety, you will find you have more energy for other things.
If you have lived with a high level of stress over a long period of time you may not be aware of being stressed or your inability to relax.

What triggers your stress?

Keeping a diary of when you feel most stressed or hassled can be a start to understanding how you cope with stress. This will tell you what kind of situation makes you feel a certain way. It is also helpful to try and think about how you reacted in certain situations:

  • Did you feel yourself tense up?
  • Did your emotions get the better of you?
  • Did you do something to calm yourself down or make yourself feel better such as having a cigarette, an alcoholic drink or eating unhealthy food?

Controlling anxiety

  • Recognising a pattern in the way you behave can help you to look for other ways of coping with stress that are less harmful.
  • Once you recognise your stress 'triggers' you can consciously try to relax in these situations by stretching tense muscles, breathing slowly and putting things into perspective.
  • At work, take jobs in order of importance and try to plan ahead.
  • Learn a relaxation technique or use exercise to help you relax.
  • Watch your alcohol intake. Having a drink to calm your nerves can be the beginning of heavier and problem drinking.
  • Learning breathing exercises and relaxation techniques can help.

hrt02-sec01-pg01-sub03 relaxTips to help you relax

  • Go to a quiet place. Get into a comfortable position with your arms and legs supported.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Concentrate on your breathing. Take deep breaths through your nose and exhale slowly through pursed lips.
  • Learn to recognise tension. Make a fist and squeeze your hand tightly. Slowly open your fingers and feel the tension leave. Your hand will feel lighter and relaxed.
  • Now you can relieve tension all over your body simply by contracting and relaxing each set of muscles in turn.
  • Every time you breathe out think 'RELAX'.

Breathing control

This is a very simple way of learning how to breathe normally and restore normal breathing when you are anxious.

It involves gentle breathing using the lower part of your chest and stomach, with the upper chest and shoulders relaxed.

Practising breathing control and relaxation techniques when you are feeling calm and relaxed will help you to cope with stressful situations when they arise. If you become confident about how to use these techniques, it will be much easier for you to use them when you actually need them.


How to do breathing control:

  • Settle yourself into a chair in a comfortable position.
  • Make sure your back is well supported.
  • Rest one hand on your lower rib cage with the other hand on your upper thigh.
  • Let your shoulders and upper chest relax, think about letting your shoulders go.
  • Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Concentrate on letting the lower part of your chest move under your hand.
  • Feel your hand rise and fall with your chest as you breathe gently in and out.
  • Breathe at your own rate. Doing this should not tire you.
  • Continue until your breathing is back under control once more.
  • Once you feel happy about doing this, you may like to try resting both hands down on your thighs with the palms of the hands facing up.


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