Rarely a day goes by when the topic of mental health, especially in relation to young people, isn’t in the news. These days people are much more open about how they feel, and if you’re experiencing stress, you won’t be alone.
Human bodies are clever; when faced with a stressful situation they release hormones to sharpen our senses and to get us ready to react. However, being in this state over a prolonged period can be damaging to both our physical and mental health.
Everybody is different. Something that causes stress to one person might not to another. But one thing is sure, nobody gets through life without experiencing stress at some stage.
In this article we examine the factors that can cause stress and the impact it can have. We’ll look at various steps you can take to cope with stress and, most importantly, we’ll signpost you to sources of information, advice and support.
What can cause stress?
All sorts of situations can lead to stress, but it’s often when there’s a combination of worries that the pressure builds up. In recent years, the Covid pandemic has had a significant impact on mental wellbeing causing uncertainty, disruption to learning, restrictions on freedom, and concern for our own health and the health of our loved ones. Even in ‘normal’ times, there are a number of things in our daily lives that can cause stress. Let’s look at a few of these.
- Comparing ourselves with others – on social media everybody seems to be ‘living their best life’ and we often hear that being young should be the happiest time of our lives. Although it may seem that everyone else is enjoying life, this is rarely always the case!
- Fear of failure – whether at work, school, college, university or in other areas of our lives, we naturally want to do well. This is especially true if a job, place on a course or a training opportunity depends on it. We often put a lot of pressure on ourselves and if our family members have high expectations, we don’t want to let them down.
- Work overload – there are times when we just have far too much to do and it’s hard to know where to start.
- Making decisions – although it’s good to have choices about our future, this can sometimes feel overwhelming.
- Transitions – that jump, for example to college, university or the world of work can be unsettling. We don’t know what to expect and may feel anxious about fitting in and coping with the increased responsibility or level of work.
- Financial concerns – trying to survive on student loans or low wages has never been easy, but add to that the cost-of-living crisis, it’s no wonder that money worries are a reality for many people.
Lots of other things can cause stress including bereavement, relationship problems or concern about a sick relative or friend. There are too many factors to list them all here, but establishing the cause of your stress is a step towards taking action to deal with it.
How stress can have an impact
Initially a stressful situation might make our heart pound, our mouth go dry, and we may sweat, blush and feel nauseous. We may experience shallow breathing or hyperventilate. These reactions are usually short lived, but over time stress can prevent us from coping with life. By being aware of some of the signs of stress, we can take action to cope, but remember that people react to stress in different ways. You might:
- be so focused on your own worries that you fail to engage properly with other people
- be short-tempered, snappy and intolerant
- experience panic attacks
- become quieter than normal and withdraw socially
- find it difficult to concentrate on your work or studies and start forgetting things
- have difficulty sleeping and find it hard to function because you are so tired.
- not want to eat much or feel the need to grab food and drink that can give you an immediate burst of energy, but lead to a slump later
- get tearful over little things
- develop habits, such as biting your fingernails, or become more reliant on cigarettes, alcohol or drugs
- find it hard to make even simple decisions
Left unchecked, stress can get worse and, in some cases, lead to depression, anxiety, self-harm and other mental health problems. It can also affect our physical health – you may experience headaches or digestive problems, for instance. Some studies indicate that stress is linked to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and cardiovascular disease.
Whilst it’s not always possible to remove the factor/s causing stress in our lives, there are things we can do to help us cope.
- Recognise your strengths and weaknesses. We can’t all be successful at everything and failing at something every now and then can be a learning process. Try to focus on the things you are good at and avoid being hard on yourself and comparing yourself with others. If you are feeling pressure from others, speak to them. They may be surprised that you feel the way you do and will usually want the best for you. You’re more likely to do well at something if you’re not stressed.
- If work overload is getting you down, make a list of everything you need to do. Is there anything you could delegate? Think about what needs to be given priority because it’s important or urgent and avoid procrastinating. Tackling something head on gives you time to get it right. Try breaking big tasks down into smaller, more manageable actions. And if you keep being put on unfairly, you should learn to say ‘no’ occasionally – politely of course.
- Try to strike a healthy work-life balance. Think about what activities make you relaxed and make time to do these. Exercise is known to release ‘happy hormones’ and fresh air is a great mood lifter, but some people find that art, music, reading, dance, gardening etc are therapeutic. Try mixing with like-minded people – there may be a society or club you could join.
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Try to get into good sleeping patterns. Avoid stimulating your brain with your mobile, caffeine, alcohol or computer games before you go to bed. If you can’t sleep, don’t be overly concerned, just relax. Make sure you eat regular, nutritious meals so that you have all the nutrients your brain and body need, and avoid eating too many unhealthy snacks and drinks.
- Talk to someone you trust. This could be a family member, friend, manager or tutor. They can help you make decisions or give you practical advice on dealing with other issues, such as relationship or money problems. Just opening up about how you feel can be a big relief.
- Be prepared. Whether it is getting ready for an exam, audition, interview or to start a new course or job, finding out what to expect and being as prepared as possible will help get you into the right frame of mind. The YoungMinds website has useful information, including on coping with exam stress.
- Wellbeing apps can help you manage your stress. Researchers at PAPYRUS have reviewed these apps so that you can find the best one for you and your situation.
Expert advice and support
Sometimes there’s only so much you can do for yourself, so if you have been feeling stressed for a long period of time or if it’s extreme, it’s important to seek professional support.
To find free, confidential support for young people in your area, you can search on the Youth Access website. Rethink Mental Illness has lots of information on its website and also allows you to search for support in your local area.
Universities and colleges have student wellbeing services with staff who can provide help with all sorts of issues. Some schools, colleges, universities and large employers have their own counsellors. Alternatively, book an appointment with your GP; talking to them may help and they may put you in touch with specialist mental health services and/or prescribe medication.
Be aware that waiting lists for appointments with NHS and some other support organisations can be long, but various charities – including those listed below – offer advice on coping with stress on their websites and provide free, confidential support.
- AnxietyUK – the website has all sorts of information on different types of anxiety, including stress. The organisation also runs courses and support groups. You can call the helpline on 03444 775774 or text 07537 416905 (Monday to Friday 9.30am to 5.30pm).
- Childline – aimed at those under 19, you can find information on coping with stress on their website or call the 24/7 helpline on 0800 1111; there’s also an online chat facility.
- Mind has information on their website on stress and other mental health conditions. You can call their infoline on 0300 123 3393 or use online chat.
- PAPYRUS – if you or a young person you know is having suicidal thoughts ring HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141 (9am to midnight each day). Samaritans has a 24/7 helpline – 116 123 – for adults who are struggling to cope. You can also contact these organisations by email or text, and PAPYRUS has a forum network.
- SANE provides support and information and runs SANEline – 0300 304 7000 (4pm to 10pm each day) – for anyone affected by mental illness.
- Shout is a 24-hour text messaging service for young people who are struggling with their mental health – text SHOUT to 85258.
- Student Space – website has information on issues that affect students. You can get support through web chat, email, over the phone or by texting STUDENT to 85258.
The NHS Better Health website has lots of useful advice; this is aimed at people in England, although much is applicable regardless of where you live and there are links to similar sites in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Some employers offer employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to provide support with personal and work-related problems including those that impact on mental and emotional wellbeing. EAPs usually operate through 24-hour helplines.
When you’re suffering from stress, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else is coping just fine, but remember that anybody can suffer from stress, even those who seem to have it together!
Schools, colleges, universities and employers are increasingly recognising the importance of good mental health, and should provide you with the support you need. And if you notice that someone else is struggling, ask them how they are, let them know that they can talk to you and encourage them to get support; there’s advice on helping others on sites such as NHS Better Health and YoungMinds.
Debbie Steel, September 2022
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.