This Stress Awareness month, we’re considering how stress affects people differently and what to look for if you’re stressed. Although stress is not a mental illness, it can be the cause of, and the symptom of one. Some people are more responsive to stressful situations and it’s important to note that different people find different cues more stressful than others. None of us have the same circumstances, genetic makeup, support network or environmental factors, all of which can add to or ease stress.

Juliette Burton, an MQ staff member, shares her recent personal experience of experiencing stress and how this impacted her health along with 4 signs to look out for and 5 actions to take to help.


Extreme and Differing Effects of Stress


Our bodies and minds can experience stress in different ways. We can have physical stresses, whether that’s a negative stress such as illness or injury, or a positive stress such as exercise and health-building activities.

Stress might be emotional, again either negative such as the toll of a highly upsetting time, or positive stress such as the stress of starting a new relationship that overall has a positive effect on our lives.

And then there’s psychological stress, which might be harder than the other stress types to notice and acknowledge. Psychological stress might be cumulative and ongoing, it might be pervasive and come from triggers both obvious or hidden.

Historically for me and others with mental health challenges, stress can have a life-limiting and inhibiting impact, perhaps more so than for some other people. Evidence of this in my past might include the stress felt during my school exam years as a teenager. As someone with mental health conditions, I had differing needs that at the time weren’t addressed and led to the deepening of my mental illnesses, and the development of others.

And when I was sectioned under the mental health act for eating disorders aged 17, the stress of this psychosocial transition was likely the cause of my subsequent psychosis which involved hallucinations and deeply troubling experiences I’m still, 20+ years later, processing.


Stressful Start to the Year


Stress affects me, my body and mind more than I ever realised. This year has proved just how responsive to stress cues I can be. In the first 2 months of this year, life threw more than one unexpected curve ball. I received a few pieces of challenging news that affected my day-to-day life and outlook quite profoundly. Illnesses, both my own and those I care about, hospitalisations, redundancies all came in the space of a few days.

The impact of uncertainty and sudden unpredictable change resulted in stress upon my mind and body. This had a sudden and clear impact on my behaviour, thoughts, and feelings. The decline of my mental health was unexpected, concerning and rapid. Thankfully it was noticed, firstly by my line manager, then myself, then reflected upon with my therapist and a close friend who revealed they’d also noticed these changes was able to take action to prevent things getting worse. This was partly down to the support from work colleagues, my therapist, my GP and the improved personal knowledge I’ve gained in the past few years. including learning a lot from research papers about stress and mental health.


4 Warning Signs of Stress

It’s important to learn to recognise and reduce the signs of stress. Thanks to working with MQ, I have become more aware of what to look out for when stress levels begin to increase, including the following 4 main areas of behavioural changes:

  • Food: Stress affects my eating habits which is common for people who experience stress. For me, my eating habits are affected often in vastly different and often confusing ways. Either I lose my appetite altogether or I lose all sense of satiation from eating. Sometimes I feel the urge to snack or what some may call an ‘oral fixation’. Sometimes I feel the urge to numb my thoughts and feelings with food. Earlier this year, it was all of these and it felt overwhelming, like I’d lost a connection to myself and my experience of being in my own body.
  • Sleep: During this period, I found myself tired a lot more often, with lower levels of energy but also staying up late with no clear physical need to go to bed. I’d find myself waking up on the sofa at 5am, wondering how I’d fallen asleep and when. Zoning out is common for people with high levels of stress and sleep patterns are often affected too. And sleep has a strong link to mental well-being as does nutrition.
  • Communication: When I’m stressed, my communication is often affected. I find it harder to focus on the problem at hand, to think and therefore speak clearly, and I struggle to retain information as effectively as usual. In close personal relationships I might be quicker to feel my temper rise, take things said more personally, become hypervigilant for perceived threats or other possible stresses and other communication complexities that themselves add to overall stress as well. Relationships that involve chronically high levels of cumulative stress do experience decreased ability to solve problems effectively. Unfortunately, at the start of this year, as I was going through my own stressful period, some of the people closest to me were also facing their own stressful challenges. So, while I was going through a stressful time, so were they.  Our communication and problem-solving took a nosedive. This perceived isolation and perceived blame or shame regarding the breakdown in communications only added to the experience of stress for us all.
  • Work: To cope with stress, sometimes I have thrown myself into work, which has not had positive effects. Temporarily, I’d be very productive but fairly consistently, I’d burn out and be unable to sustain the pressure I was putting myself under. Working too hard and burnout is a rising problem in the UK, hence MQ’s commitment to building a mentally healthier nation since 1 in 5 people took time off work due to mental health conditions last year. Long working hours adversely affect the health of workers. While this is fantastic knowledge for employers to apply to reduce stress in the workplace, when we are adults in charge of our own work patterns and work/life space, it can be challenging and yet vitally important to ensure we don’t overwork ourselves leaving no room to decompress.


5 Actions To Help Manage Acute Stress


I’ve also begun to take my responsiveness to stress more seriously, instead of brushing it off as something I ‘should’ be more able to handle. Working with my nature rather than against it has been more productive and empowering leading to more consistency and resilience.

Admittedly, I’m in a category of people who’d be deemed ‘at risk’ of developing mental illness since I live with many contributing factors and a long history of pervasive conditions. Having clear and consistent, reliable communication with friends both remotely and in person, knowing my friends and family are themselves stable and secure or at least seeing one or two consistent and supportive friends or colleagues regularly has helped me at both critical and moderately concerning times in my life.

While many things can help or hinder stress, for me these 5 are a go-to for help in reducing acute stress levels:

  • Support network – Social support networks are vital in helping us all manage and alleviate stress. Friends and other support networks can moderate genetic and environmental vulnerabilities for those affected by mental illness. Support networks can help encourage effective coping strategies. Often, a robust social and emotional support from others is related to protecting both physical and mental health. Earlier this year, for me, for various reasons, support networks narrowed. The effects of this were profound. This then impacted my perceived ability to turn to others and my motivation to reach out to others, too.


  • Alone time – Conversely, taking time away from being in contact with people can also help. Taking time to switch off from social interactions particularly in this era of constant contact on social media, messaging services, emails and other connectivity medias. Days with more in-person communication are mentally healthier not just for me but according to research too. Using different communication modes can make a big difference to daily well-being.


  • Being active – When stress begins to build, ensuring I am regularly physically active is one of my key adjustments. If my physical activity levels lessen, I notice stress building. Whether it’s running, walking, dancing, cycling, being more physically active supports the stability of my mental wellness. If stress levels have reached a critical or burnout point, I find aiming to increase physical activity bit by bit, day by day can have a noticeably positive effect. For example, beginning with a walk to the local shop on day 1, then a walk around a park on day 2, a walk into town on day 3, a cycle on day 4. By the end of 1 week, I often find myself feeling more able to run or go out to dance. Part of my stress management and therefore mental health management needs to be to build physical activity into my daily routine.


  • Creativity – Being creative can have a very positive effect on stress management. For me, creating and being free to create is a vital aspect of remaining mentally well and managing stress levels. I not only write for MQ as a copywriter but I also write creatively and also comedy, too. The process of creating humour or prose is like a cyclical processing of energy – ideas are turned into words which are, in turn, turned into something beneficial to others. Sometimes that cycle includes the feedback of others, the appreciation and then their input which feeds back into the creation of new ideas. It’s a generation and processing of productive and reciprocal creation. It’s a force that if I deny it or neglect it has a detrimental effect and if I nurture and make time for it has positive effects.


  • Working or Not Working – While working can often help my mental health, if kept in balance, at times of acute stress when my mental illness symptoms are intensifying, there comes a point when I need to redress the balance and focus on looking after my mental health so things do not continue to worsen. This was the case earlier this year. After speaking with my GP and being diagnosed with ‘reactive depression’ I was signed off work. Thanks to this time to focus purely on caring for my mental health and physical health, I was back to work far sooner and more productively than I anticipate would’ve happened otherwise.

Attitudes towards taking time to look after our mental health need to change to help marginalised people living with mental illness to manage our mental wellness with the support of the workplace. Luckily for me, MQ were wonderful in supporting me in my time off work and my transition back to work, along with being open to my feedback on what could be done to improve that process so others can benefit too.

Research has helped me understand my own response to stress far more in depth. Before now in my life, without knowledge of research into my conditions or how my body and mind might be affected differently to others when encountering stress, I’ve lived with deep-seated misunderstanding and deep-rooted shame.

Now I understand more thanks to research, I’m more knowledgeable, can make more informed choices and therefore, I’m more self-assured. For someone like me, research is empowerment.


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