School and college life just seem to get busier and busier, and we’ve probably all had moments of feeling totally overwhelmed. But stress doesn’t have to be an inescapable part of your life. This guide will lay out how to recognise when you’re stressed and what to do about it.
What is stress?
Stress is basically your body’s reaction to feeling overwhelmed. It’s what happens when you’ve got too much going on, too many things to keep track of, or major emotional pressure. It can show up in a lot of different ways, some emotional and even some physical.
Emotional signs of stress are feeling irritable, angry, or nervous. You might feel like you’re constantly on the verge of tears, or just really sad. Physical symptoms can range from headaches to nausea. You might find your sleeping or eating habits changing - maybe you can’t sleep or can’t eat, or maybe you want to sleep and eat a lot. Basically, stress responses really vary, but they’re a sudden and sometimes random-seeming change to your physical and mental health.
Some of this might sound a lot like what it feels like to have anxiety - but the big difference is that stress is usually short-term and related to specific things going on in your life. Anxiety lasts for much longer, and might happen for what seems like no reason at all. Check out our guide Accessing help for anxiety to learn more.
The science behind stress
Stress is your body's natural defence against danger. It flushes the body with chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline to help you run away from or fight a predator or threat. These hormones trigger an increased heart rate, heightened muscle preparedness, sweating, and alertness, all of which can be a huge help when responding to a physically dangerous situation.
These days, we’re not really using our stress responses to run away from predators, but a little bit of stress can still be useful. It’s what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at school, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting a game-winning shot, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching Netflix. After a certain point, though, it stops being helpful and starts actually hurting your health and happiness.
Ways to manage stress
With everybody talking about how stressed they are all the time, it might just feel like an inescapable part of life. It actually doesn’t have to be. Even if you can’t get rid of every source of stress, there are ways to reduce the physical and emotional impact that stress has on you.
Identify your triggers
It’s important to pay attention to your own body. Because stress kicks in when we’re nervous or overwhelmed, it’s easy to just get lost in the blur of feelings and not pay much attention to what’s actually going on. Start to notice how you react to stress physically and emotionally, and try to note the types of things that tend to stress you out. These will be different for everybody. Some people can tackle three essays without breaking a sweat, and others get super stressed just thinking about one. There’s no right or wrong, but understanding your unique triggers and responses is an important first step to managing your stress.
By working out what causes stress for you, you can work out which sources of stress you can solve and plan for, and which you might just have to cope with. For example, if you know that exams stress you out, you can start planning well in advance with some of the strategies we’re about to talk about below. On the other hand, if you know that not knowing things makes you stressed - like waiting to hear back about a job or a medical appointment - there isn’t much you can do to prevent those situations from happening, but you can develop strategies for taking care of yourself when they do.
Sometimes the root cause isn’t so straightforward. You might realise that you’re actually stressed about problems in your family or your friend group, but it’s manifesting as stress about other things. We’ve got lots of different Know-How Library guides that can help you start to tackle some of these more difficult questions, including Managing your workload, Making friends, or managing your mental health and wellbeing.
If you’ve addressed the obvious sources and are still feeling constantly stressed, you might be dealing with anxiety, not just stress. Check out our guide Accessing help for anxiety to learn a bit more.
Take small actions
When you’re stressed, you might feel like you’re drowning. It can really help to sit down and think about which parts of your situation you’re able to control. If you’re stressed about work or school, you could check out our Managing your workload guide for some tips on getting your studies in order. If your stress feels bigger or more abstract than that, really dig down into concrete steps you could take. If you’re stressed about an upcoming event, what can you do to prepare? If you’re stressed that something might go wrong, can you come up with a back-up plan so that you’ll be ready if it does? If you’re overwhelmed by a decision you have to make, can you sit down and do some research into different options?
These might seem like simple or obvious suggestions, but when you’re overwhelmed by stress, it sometimes feels impossible to take action. Finding concrete steps to take to address the source of your stress, no matter how small, can make you feel so much better. It reminds you that you’re in control of the situation, and that things might not be as dire as they seem.
If you don’t know where to start, try these steps:
- Make a list of things you need to do. Make a note of what’s most important, what’s due first, and how long things will take. This lets you get a clearer picture of what you actually need to get done. It might turn out that it’s less than you think, or that some of the tasks will be quicker than your stress made them seem.
- With long tasks, work backwards: when is something due? How much would you need to get done each day to finish it on time? Maybe you have more time than you think.
- Let yourself start small. Begin your day with one or two fast, easy tasks so that you can check things off your to-do list quickly and start your day feeling accomplished. There’s nothing wrong with adding even the most basic things - brush your teeth, make your bed - onto the list. It might sound silly, but psychologically speaking, it totally works. However, don't let this become a way to put off bigger, more important tasks: just do one or two to kickstart your day with a feeling of productivity.
- Speaking of small things, break down big jobs into smaller ones. This can help them feel much more achievable. ‘Clean your room’ is intimidating, but ‘put away any clothes you've left out’ followed by ‘vacuum the floor’ is much more manageable.
- Let things go. If you’re in a major crunch time, identify some tasks or responsibilities that can just wait until later. Stress can make you feel like everything is equally important, and sometimes it is - but usually there are one or two things you can set aside until you have more time.
Clear your mind
Sometimes, your stress is coming from something you can’t control with a to-do list or an action plan - or your deadlines have piled up so much that laying everything out just proves how much you have to do. In those cases, it’s time to tackle the feelings of stress rather than just the causes.
Exercise can be a great way to take a break and clear your mind. It might feel like you don’t have time for working out when there’s so much to do, but the chance to focus your brain in a different way will improve everything from your mood to your concentration, which will help you work.
Slower-paced practices like yoga and mindfulness have been proven to help with stress and anxiety as well. Our guides An introduction to Yoga and Pilates and An introduction to Mindfulness have much more information on what these are and how to give them a try. As mentioned above, stress is an ancient, instinctive response in the body - so focusing on calming and soothing your body is actually a great way to reduce the emotional symptoms of stress, too.
There are also a lot of apps that can help you meditate or practise mindfulness - you can find some examples at the bottom of this guide.
Seek professional support
If you just can’t break out of the cycle of stress, there are professionals who can help.
At school or college, you'll usually have a pastoral lead, guidance counselor, or student adviser who you can make an appointment with to share how you're feeling. Visit or call your school or college's reception if you're not sure how to do this.
Or you could make an appointment with your doctor (GP) – they'll be able to give you advice and, if it seems necessary, refer you to other possible sources of support. This could include therapy or counselling.
Good stuff from elsewhere
The 'stress bucket' analogy
Another useful way to think about how stress works.
Free mindfulness and meditation apps