Factsheet: Stress

This factsheet is available in a downloadable PDF here. 

Table of Contents

Guided Self Help
Relaxation & Sleep
Complementary Therapy
How can I Relax After a Tough Day?
Can Stress Affect my Sleep Patterns?
What Type of Exercise is Best for Relieving Stress?


‘Stress’ is commonly understood to be a result of being under too much pressure. The causes for stress are as varied as the different ways that stress affects each individual and the ways in which people cope with their stress.

Some stress may help your body to prepare for certain challenges, so it’s probably impossible to live without any stress. But too much stress, especially if it’s day in, day out, can cause physical and emotional difficulties.

The stresses we face in our everyday lives – such as deadlines at work or money troubles can cause your body to respond involuntarily, for example muscle tension or a racing heart. This is a result of the body’s central nervous system reacting to the pressures of everyday life.



Many things (or the anticipation of them) can lead to stress. These include:

  • Pressure to perform at work or at school
  • Threats of physical violence
  • Money worries
  • Arguments
  • Family conflicts
  • Divorce
  • Bereavement
  • Unemployment
  • Moving house
  • Marriage

Often there is no particular reason for developing stress, and it’s caused by a build-up of a number of small things. Stress can be caused by a range of common situations. However, people have very different responses to stress. For some people, stress can be useful, helping motivate them to achieve more. In others, particularly if it goes on for a long period of time, it causes a sense of not being able to cope.

It’s important to differentiate between temporary stress that you know will go away when a situation is resolved, and long-term or chronic stress. Most people can cope with short periods of stress. Chronic (long-term or continuous) stress is much harder to deal with, and can be psychologically and emotionally damaging, both for you and your friends and family.


Everyone reacts to stress differently, but there are some common effects to look out for. In times of extreme stress, people may tremble, hyperventilate (breathe faster and deeper than normal) or even vomit. For people with asthma, stress can trigger an asthma attack. People who are chronically stressed may have:

  • Periods of irritability or anger
  • Apathy or depression
  • Constant anxiety
  • Irrational behaviour
  • Loss of appetite
  • Comfort eating
  • Lack of concentration
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Increased smoking, drinking or taking recreational drugs

There can also be physical effects, which may include the following:

  • Excessive tiredness
  • Skin problems, such as eczema
  • Aches and pains resulting from tense muscles, including neck ache, backache and tension headaches
  • Increased pain from arthritis and other conditions
  • Heart palpitations
  • Feeling sick
  • Stomach problems
  • For women, missed periods




Here are some ways you can help yourself to deal better with stress:

  • Take regular exercise – even if you are not sporty, brisk walking for 30 minutes every day can be a very effective stress buster
  • Delegate or share your responsibilities at work – making yourself indispensible can be a major source of problems
  • Learn to be more assertive – for example, not agreeing to things you know you can’t do well or know shouldn’t be your responsibility
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol or take drugs – these will not help you to cope better and may make you ill
  • Don’t drink too much caffeine
  • Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables
  • Set aside some time to organise yourself
  • Find some quiet time to listen to music or relaxation tapes
  • Learn breathing techniques – this can help you to ‘centre’ yourself and slow down

A good way to tackle stress is to talk to your friends or family – sharing your thoughts and worries can help It’s important to talk directly to your manager if you are suffering from work-related stress. Your manager has a duty to take reasonable steps to try to resolve the problem. If stress is causing physical symptoms, severe distress or making it difficult for you to function as normal, it’s worth seeing your doctor. It’s important to remember that although stress is a usual part of life, extreme or prolonged stress can be harmful and needs treatment.

Your doctor will be able to spot the physical symptoms of stress. In case there are physical reasons for your symptoms, the doctor may also want to do some tests to exclude certain conditions. He or she may also help you identify the things that are causing your stress and give advice on learning techniques to help you relax.

Click here for more information about Self Help

Guided Self Help

Midlothian GPs can now refer people to a 1 year Guided Self Help pilot project. The service is run by trained Guided Self Help Workers.

The Workers can introduce you to and supply you with self-help materials which you can work through on your own. These materials are designed to help you understand and address your problems independently.

Most of the materials used are based on ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’ techniques (‘CBT’). The CBT approach is structured, commonly using images, self instruction and other techniques to develop thinking and strategies to enable us to overcome and deal with situation.



Only in exceptional circumstances is your doctor likely to prescribe medication to help you cope with stress, although some types of anxiety can be treated with antidepressants.
Anti-anxiety drugs such as diazepam (e.g. Valium) aren’t suitable for treating stress. They won’t help you learn to cope better with the stresses you face, just make you less aware of them. You may also become dependent on this type of drug. Rather than relying on medicine, it’s usually far better to try and identify the things in your life that are causing stress and try to deal with them.


Relaxation & Sleep

Relaxation training is a feature of some types of psychotherapy. Various types of relaxation therapy are available, which you might want to discuss with your doctor. You may find Yoga, Tai Chi or other exercises helpful.

Click here for more information on Tips for Better Sleep

Complementary Therapy

Although there are a wide variety of complementary therapies available for the treatment of anxiety, none have been conclusively shown to work and they may have side-effects. If you do choose to take a complementary medicine, you should always tell your GP or pharmacist, as it may interact with other medicines you’re taking.

Click here for more information on Complementary Therapies 


How can I Relax After a Tough Day?

There are several different techniques you can learn to help you wind down and reduce your stress levels.  If you’re feeling stressed, make time at home to try out the following exercises.

  • Shut your eyes and breathe in and out slowly and gently
  • Visualise any tense areas of your body. Imagine your muscles relaxing and the tension draining away
  • Visualise every part of your body, imagine them warming up, feeling heavier and more relaxed all the time. Start at your feet and move up slowly to your head. When you have done this for about 20 minutes, inhale deeply a few times and stretch

Can Stress Affect my Sleep Patterns?

Yes, too much stress in your life can cause sleeping problems. There are steps you can take to try and sleep better when stressed. An estimated one in five people have problems sleeping. Some simple tips to help you sleep better are listed below.

  • Get your sleep environment right. If it is too bright, use thicker curtains or an eye mask. If it is too loud, use ear plugs. Adjust your heating so it isn’t too hot or cold.
  • Try to get up and go to bed at the same time every day. If you get into a routine, you may start to feel sleepy at the same each day.
  • Develop a routine that helps you relax before going to bed. Some ideas include going for a short walk, reading, taking a hot bath or having a warm drink (but not with caffeine in it). You could also try some relaxation exercises.
  • Exercising during the day may help you get to sleep, and also helps reduce stress.

What Type of Exercise is Best for Relieving Stress?

The type of exercise you do probably doesn’t matter, so long as you enjoy it and can do it regularly. Resistance exercise may help your body develops faster and you may find this improves how you feel about yourself and make you feel better. Others may find team sports more helpful for their mood.

Any type of moderate exercise can help you manage stress. Moderate exercise means you get slightly out of breath doing it, and on a warm day it might make you sweat. People who are active feel less anxious and happier than inactive people. Exercising can make you feel less anxious in general. Single bouts of exercise can also have a more immediate effect in helping to relieve anxiety. Exercising can also help you get to sleep more easily, and will help improve your mood.

External websites related to Stress

These web sites may be useful. Please note that we are not responsible for external sites; if you find any broken links or inappropriate content please report it to the site administrators using the feedback page.

  • Saneline
    Saneline is a national mental health helpline providing emotional support and information. Anyone affected by mental illness can use this line, including carers and concerned friends or family. The helpline number is 0300 304 7000. The Helpline is open outside of normal office hours, from 4.30pm - 10.30pm pm every day of the year. The person who answers the phone will be empathetic and non-judgemental, providing a space for you to talk about any aspect of your mental health, or the mental health of someone you care about. You can get emotional support to address your individual experience, as well as help to explore options and action.
  • No Panic

    No Panic aims to offer relief and rehabilitation to people suffering from anxiety disorders, for example Panic, Phobias and Obsessive/Complusive Disorders.

  • Samaritans
    Samaritans provides confidential emotional support, 24 hours a day for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which may lead to suicide. You don't have to be suicidal to call us. We are here for you if you're worried about something, feel upset or confused, or you just want to talk to someone.
  • Breathing Space
    Breathing Space is a confidential helpline for anyone in Scotland experiencing mental ill  health. It was launched in 2002, and became a national phoneline in 2004. Breathing Space is funded by the Scottish Government's Mental Health Unit. The service is operationally managed by NHS 24 and delivered from NHS 24 contact centres in Clydebank, Cardonald and South Queensferry. Breathing Space is a COSCA (Counselling and Psychotherapy in Scotland) recognised counselling skills organisation. 
  • Counselling Directory
    Counselling Directory is a searchable database of therapists offering a range of counselling and therapy services. 
  • Stress and Anxiety in Teenagers
    Interactive site on stress and anxiety from the Young Peoples Unit in Edinburgh
  • Steps for Stress
    This website covers practical ways for you to start dealing with stress.
  • NHS Stress Control Classes
    Information about NHS stress control courses that run throughout the year in Lothian and Midlothian.

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