People often talk about ‘stress’ but the meaning of the word is a bit unclear. It tends to mean different things to different people. One good definition is ‘stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand’. It’s how we react when we are under pressure. Some stress is a good thing. It motivates us to do things that we need to do. We can get bored if there is no stress in our lives for a long period of time. However, too much stress is not pleasant.

When we feel ‘stressed’ it is usually because we feel we are being asked to do more than we think we are able to cope with.

If we feel that our problems can’t be solved or that there are too many problems to solve we may feel stressed. Common sources of stress include work, relationships and money problems.

How does stress affect us?

Stress affects both the mind and the body. If we think that we are about to face a problem our body gets us ready to deal with it. Our heart beats faster, we breathe more quickly, we may sweat or feel a sick, sinking feeling in our stomach. That’s our body getting us ready to fight or run away.  It’s a useful response in an emergency and in small doses it wakes us up and makes us more motivated. Unfortunately, it can make us feel very uncomfortable and can lead to headaches, gastric problems and difficulty sleeping in the long-term.

Our mind also tries to ready itself to deal with problems. We often find ourselves thinking more quickly. But the more stressed we get the more it feels like are thoughts are racing and we can feel out of control.

How can we cope with stress?

You probably already have some strategies that you use to deal with stress. We all have our own individual preferences – what works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else. But it’s helpful to try to add to the ways you can deal with stress.

There are two main ways of dealing with stress. We can try to solve the problem or we can use emotion-focused coping to feel better even if the problem cannot be solved.

If we rely entirely on problem solving strategies we will struggle when we come up against a problem that either cannot be solved or will take a long time to be solved.

If we rely entirely only on emotion-focused coping we won’t solve any of life’s problems.

As with most things in life, we need a balance of these two types of stress management strategies. Let’s look at them in more detail:

Problem solving

Break a big task into small steps

If you break a huge task down into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks it will feel much easier to complete. There are a number of skills you can learn to improve your ability to solve problems.The University of Auckland’s pages on ‘Problem Solving Therapy’ talk through some of these skills.

Asking for help

A task that is incredibly stressful for one person may not be that stressful to someone else. It all depends on our skills and past experience. For example, if you were asked to land a plane mid-flight you’d be extremely stressed unless you were an experienced pilot.

We can resolve stress by learning the skills needed to solve a problem. If learning the skills yourself would take long perhaps you can find a way to pay someone (in cash or by swapping skills) to do the task for you.

Saying ‘No’

Saying ‘No’ is a really good way of reducing stress. If we have less to do we are less likely to feel stressed.

We often feel that we have no choice and we must do everything that we are asked to do. Sometimes that’s true but at other times it might be that the consequences of saying ‘No’ aren’t as bad as we think that they’ll be. Could it be that the person who is really ‘forcing’ us to work so hard is ourselves?

If someone else is asking us to do too much, perhaps a demanding boss, then saying a straight ‘no’ to them might be too difficult. However, if you can’t do something it’s much better to admit this as soon as possible.

A good strategy can be to present the problem back to your boss. For example you could say:

‘Sure, I can complete this project by the end of the week but to do that I’ll need to push the deadline back on the project you gave me yesterday. Which project would you like me to do.’

This sounds a lot more positive than saying the word ‘no’. It’s also a good way of demonstrating that you’re a thinking strategically on behalf of the team. If you have an unreasonable boss who insists that you do the impossible then you’re going to need to rely on emotion-focused coping skills.

Emotion Focused Coping

When we meet a problem that we cannot solve or is going to take time to solve then we can use ’emotion focused coping’ to help ourselves feel better. Here are a few things to think about:

Avoiding Self-blame & Self-Criticism

The first step is to make sure we are not making it worse for ourselves. We may be in a bad situation but blaming ourselves is going to make it feel a lot worse. We should recognise that we were given an impossible task and give ourselves credit for the effort we put in.

Take time out to do things that make us feel better

If we have too much work to do taking time out to do something we enjoy might seem like an odd thing to do. However, if we give ourselves a break we are more likely to work more efficiently and be more productive. No to mention that we might actually feel a bit better. Here are some ideas to give yourself a break:


If exercise could be taken as a pill it would be seen as a wonder drug. It improves mood and health over the long-term and in the short-term it gives us a boost of energy and positive feelings. We can exercise in many different ways. Dancing, walking, gardening can be as effective for mood as heading to the gym.

Any fun activity

Any activity that we enjoy can give us a break from stress, We can play an instrument, draw, paint, talk to a friend, watch TV, play computer games etc. Here’s a list of 365 potential activities to get you started.

Relaxation Exercises

Relaxation exercises are useful at anytime but they are particularly useful if you find it difficult to sleep. Please see my page on relaxation for more information. 

Dealing with Worry

Worry is often the block that prevents us from using emotion focused coping. If you can’t stop thinking about a problem it’s difficult to give yourself a break or do a fun activity. For some advice on how to deal with worry, click here.

Any questions or comments?

Did you find this article helpful? If you have any questions on this topic write them in comments section at the bottom of this page and we’ll reply as soon as possible. We enjoy reading comments and opinions from our readers.

It can sometimes be difficult to make these changes on your own. Please contact us if you would like to arrange an appointment.

Further resources to manage stress

The links below give you more information about managing stress and worry:

How to deal with Stress’ by the UK’s National Health Service

This is the UK’s National Health Service’s (NHS) guide to reducing stress.

‘How to Manage Stress’ by Mind (UK Charity)

Mind’s pages on stress are really clear and offer helpful practical advice.

‘Stress’ by Anxiety UK (Charity)

Information about stress from a UK charity that specialises in supporting people who are having trouble with worry, stress and anxiety.

‘Problem Solving Therapy’ by the University of Auckland

Feeling stressed is often the result of feeling like you can’t cope with the demands placed on you. Problem Solving Therapy aims to make you better at solving problems. The site has videos and guides to improve your problem solving skills.

‘5 things you should know about stress’ by the US National Institute of Mental Health

This US government organisation has a brief fact sheet on stress which can be printed out.


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