What is stress? Why stress levels soared during the Pandemic in Yorkshire and how to manage stress

Stress levels soared during the pandemic with an estimated 68,000 cases each year in the region, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Figures in the three years prior to March 2021 were 38% higher in Yorkshire and The Humber than in the previous three years which is slightly more than the national average.

April is Stress Awareness Month and official figures show the problem is on the rise across Britain.

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Stress continues to impact the lives of many people with 70% of doctors visits being to do with stress-related issues, although many people have shared their stories of being unable to access their GP.

While stress is a common mental health problem, its effects can lead to physical health problems and further mental health issues.

Wakefield carer Rachel Dove knows all too well how damaging “sticking a plaster” over stress can be.

“I washed my hands. I washed them again. I washed them till they bled, and my knuckles cracked open like crags in a rock. I still washed them, though the water was tinged red with blood,” said mum-of-two Rachel who said that her busy life pre-pandemic caught up with her.

Rachel qualified as a teacher in 2016 and focused on special educational needs and autism, and how to raise awareness and help the children in schools.

But when she found herself going through the diagnosis process with both of her sons, now 14 and 12, she found the assessment process “harrowing and isolating.”

“Gradually, my children struggled in school, and judgemental parents made nasty ignorant comments.

“Passers by judged my child and me for meltdowns that they didn’t understand or try to care about,” explained Rachel.

Trying to juggle teaching and caring for two children felt overwhelming, so when Rachel won a writing competition which landed her a huge book deal, she thought her dreams had come true.

“I started working from home, left teaching and got my children assessed.

“Friends and people I met were often in awe of me, I was so busy, so organised, so happy, so informed,” said Rachel who also starting campaigning to help others in her community while completing a Masters Degree.

“I was juggling daily, sometimes hourly calls from the school about my children. I was coping yes, but everything was lists and stress.

“The truth was, I didn’t know how I was doing it either. I was just doing it, or so I thought,” added Rachel who said that this all triggered her to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder due to her role as a carer.

Eventually Rachel’s children were diagnosed, her youngest has autism and ADHD and her eldest has Aspergers.

“The same week that my youngest son finally got his EHCP through the post from the council, after I had battled against gaslighting school staff and fought the system, lockdown happened. Suddenly my children were home with me. My brain snapped.

“I had won, and now we were all locked in together. My husband was an essential electrical worker and still went to work to keep us going,” said Rachel.

This is when Rachel’s mental health rapidly deteriorated and she began to compulsively wash her hands until they bled.

“I developed panic attacks, emotional outbursts and experienced irrational fears said Rachel who had become a successful published author with more deals in the pipeline.

But during this period she stopped working because Rachel was convinced she was a “rubbish writer, and that no-one cared.”

It was when Rachel began contemplating and planning taking her own life that she finally realised she needed help.

“I was done, and my family were better off without me.”

Rachel felt mentally and physically drained from years of stress.

“I had a folic acid deficiency which causes mental health issues. I couldn’t see through the fog. I was always able to push through before. I didn’t want to anymore,” said Rachel who began therapy in March 2020.

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“The fight or flight response is something that I battle every day, and I have support but many don’t.

“Whether you are a parent or not, the pandemic has highlighted the need for social interaction and getting outside so much, and it’s vital we keep this message going.

“Our society often champions people having it all and running through life hell for leather. This is toxic, and self-care is the antidote.

“Walking a dog, walking in the fresh air, reading a book you enjoy, listening to a piece of music. Simple things that can reset the brain, and remind us to smell the roses in life,” added Rachel.

Rachel now realises that whilst working from home is ideal for her caring responsibilities it can also be extremely isolating.

“I drive to school and back, and often didn’t see a soul other than my neighbours and members of my own household,” but now with the right support Rachel pushes herself to go out daily.

“I speak to my friends and family honestly about dark thoughts and my feelings. I don’t get it right every time, I react in strange ways when pushed. When I get stressed now, my body physically tells me to calm down. It’s survival instinct, and I plan to listen to it.”

Katrina Lewis, 40, also found working from home in Kirklees during the pandemic a trigger to her mental health despite loving the the corporate job she had been doing.

“One day I found myself in a heap on the floor, crying my eyes out, it had all gotten too much,”

“I felt like I was losing my identity and it all felt overwhelming, I didn’t get the buzz I used to.

“My employers were awesome but I put so much pressure on myself and I found myself going from a fabulous office and team to endless zoom calls as well as dealing with home and family life and everything just seemed blurred,” explained the mum-of-two.

Katrina called the GP but was told she had to wait a month for an appointment.

“The next day I was having palpitations and felt like I was going to die, it was when my stress turned physical that I knew I had to do something,” said Katrina who took time off from work and then decided to leave to get her “head and life back on track.”

She added: “I just needed some time out to focus on my family and my health. “When I eventually saw a doctor I was shocked to be diagnosed with depression.”

Katrina took the time she needed and completed her studies she started in Lockdown finishing off a diploma in interior design.

“I knew I want to graft again and get out and about doing something creative, so I decided to start my own interior design business,” said Katrina who now runs Katrina Lewis Interiors Ltd.

Katrina now feels she has a better work life balance which was vital to her recovery but she hopes to share her story to help others as she “never thought I would lose my mind like this as I have always been so driven.”

“I now feel that I am back to me again and life feels great.”

Official figures show that around one in 40 British workers had work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2020/21. This accounted for half of all work-related illness, with people working in teaching and healthcare jobs reporting the highest rates.

Sheffield holistic therapist suffered from work-related stress during the pandemic which caused migraines.

Therapist and life coach Samantha Wheeler said that “regular aromatherapy head neck and shoulder massages” helps her to manage her stress and migraines now.

Former Leeds teacher Abi Fenton, 38, also turned to holistic therapies to manage her mental health.

Abi said: “Stress has impacted me throughout my life. However I would say that my time as a teacher was probably when my stress levels were at the highest.

“I became so anxious and it affected my mental health and work.

“I was off sick from work due to the stress and anxiety for several months.

“As well as the support from the GPs I decided that I wanted to take a more natural approach to managing my health,” said Abi who tired Reiki and Hypnotherapy with a complementary therapist.

“I know for sure that without these I would not have been able to get back to work and manage my stress and anxiety long term,” said mum-of-two Abi.

Teaching continued to cause Abi to feel stressed as the profession changed over time.

In 2016, Abi left teaching to set up her own complementary business providing Reiki, Hypnotherapy and Reflexology to clients, using her experience as well as training to support clients with their mental health as she had been.

“Now I use these skills myself such as self hypnosis, mindfulness techniques, meditation and Reiki to support my stress and mental health and manage it in a healthy and natural way,” added Abi.

Artist and teaching assistant Lucy Kenyon, 34, was having treatment for an eating disorder when she felt overwhelmed by stress.

“I still hadn’t figured out a good enough coping mechanism for my depression. With the help of prescribed medication, homeopathy and counselling I got a lot better. I also moved back in with my parents so the added support from them helped me heal much quicker.”

Mum-of-one Lucy then experienced a breakdown during the pandemic but after feeling initially isolated and unable to do her art, once Lucy began drawing again she couldn’t stop and found herself creating Kaleidoscopic works of art which she now sells.

“I spent a year creating artwork just for myself but as I created more colourful pieces, I began creating ones for other people to enjoy.

“Now my dream is to share my art and spread my vision. I want to inspire people who need that extra glow in life to heal,” added Lucy.

For some stress isn’t caused by one significant event, it can be our body’s natural reaction to certain situations, explained Ella Bains, 41, from Leeds.

Ella wants to share hope to other of how she copes with stress as an empathetic person.

“I find I can become obsessed over things, once I have my teeth into something nothing else matters. If someone is upset, I am devastated. If something hasn’t been done, I feel overriding guilt, and it prays on my mind. I feel I have to be working to keep the guilt away. I also feel mum guilt constantly, my kids are my world, juggling working and family life is hard.

“We need to remind ourselves we are doing a good job!”

Ella who runs social enterprise Eric Knows to inspire families facing barriers to explore the North said that she now tries to rest as it’s a important as work.

“Often that’s when the knots of life’s problems are untied; when you stop pulling, and just allow things to unravel on their own.

“When I remind myself of the things I would tell a friend or a colleague, it reduces the pressure, and I reconnect with my happiness.”

What is Stress?: Symptoms, causes and how to get NHS help in Yorkshire

Most of us feel stressed at times - some even find it a helpful motivator - but if it is affecting your life you may want to take steps to boost your wellbeing or get professional help.

What is stress?

Stress is our body’s reaction to pressures from a situation or life event.

What has happened to stress levels during the pandemic?

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that there are 749,000 cases of work-related stress, anxiety and depression in Great Britain each year. The pandemic has seen the problem soar - rates of work-related stress, anxiety and depression in the three years to March 2021 were 36% higher than in the previous three years.

Are you suffering from stress?

Stress is the mind and body's reaction to uncertain events and challenges. A rise in cortisol aka 'the stress hormone' and adrenaline triggers our 'fight or flight' response which originally would be used to stave off perceived threats such as 'tigers.' But now it is metaphorical tigers such as work, conflict, poverty or wealth and unemployment to name but a few triggers. How someone deals with stress is individual to them.

Stress is a common reaction to emotional or mental pressure. When you feel anxious or under pressure, your body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

This can help you to feel motivated and get things done, but it may also cause physical symptoms such as a faster heartbeat or sweating. Feeling stressed all the time can be a sign of an underlying problem.

Causes of stress can include pressure at work, family difficulties such as divorce, financial or health problems or significant life events such as moving house or having a baby. Sometimes there is no obvious cause.

If you want to find out whether you could be suffering from stress, the NHS has a mood self-assessment quiz.

Signs and symptoms of stress

According to the NHS, there are a variety of physical and mental symptoms - and it is not always easy to recognise that stress is the underlying cause.

Physical symptoms include:

headaches or dizziness

muscle tension or pain

stomach problems

chest pain or a faster heartbeat

sexual problems

Mental symptoms include:

difficulty concentrating

struggling to make decisions

feeling overwhelmed

constantly worrying

being forgetful

Stress can also cause changes in behaviour, such as:

being irritable and snappy

sleeping too much or too little

eating too much or too little

avoiding certain places or people

drinking or smoking more

Things you can do to alleviate stress

Mental health charities offer plenty of advice about how to manage stress.

For example, Mind suggests that people can:

spend time in nature

look after their physical health by getting enough sleep, eating well and taking exercise

develop their interests and hobbies

try to find time to relax, for example by taking a short break

Getting NHS help for stress

If you need more support, you can contact the NHS for free talking therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy.

People in England can refer themselves directly to an NHS programme called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT), without needing to speak to a GP first.

In Scotland, a phone service called Living Life helps people over 16 using guided self-help and cognitive behavioural therapy.

People in Wales and Northern Ireland wanting to access NHS-funded cognitive behavioural therapy should speak to their GP.

Call 999 or go to A&E straight away if you or someone you know needs immediate help, or you have seriously harmed yourself, for example by taking a drug overdose. A mental health emergency should be taken as seriously as any other medical emergency.