Understanding and Dealing With Stress by Clinical Psychologist Kasia Mullan | Part 1

We’re pleased to be bringing you a guest blog post from Clinical Psychologist Dr. Kasia Mullan.

Most of us have at least some awareness of what stress is and would have inevitably experienced it at one stage or another; but spotting the signs, understanding what is happening within us when we are experiencing stress, and knowing how to manage it, is not always easy. In fact, there are many myths about stress (see below) which complicate the picture, alongside well-meaning yet often conflicting messages in the media and online about what we should be doing about it. 

I am grateful to be offered the opportunity to raise awareness through this blog of what stress is (and what it is not!), what to look for, what causes it and – importantly – what we can do to help ourselves and those around us manage it as effectively as possible. As a clinical psychologist, I regularly witness the toll that stress can take on individuals’ mental and physical health, and the ripple effect this can have on numerous areas of life including relationships, work productivity and the ability to fulfil our various roles and responsibilities. 

In this blog, I’ll share some insights and practical tips to help you steer through stress once it arises, as well as consider what can be done preventatively to help cultivate greater well-being and resilience in the face of challenging times.

Spoiler alert: it’s not the same for everyone, and the most popular techniques for stress management may not be the best ones for you, or you might simply not like them, which is ok. With this in mind, I encourage you to read on with a stance of open-mindedness and self-compassion and let’s see if you may be able to build a custom ‘toolkit’ to help you. 

Part 01

Let’s start by considering some of these statements: 

  • Stress is a choice
  • Stress is always bad 
  • Stress only affects adults
  • Stress is all in the mind 
  • Stress is unavoidable 

You may have come across some version of these statements in the past, either among the tens of thousands of self-help books available on Amazon, internet forums, or good old traditional folklore. They have something in common, and that is: they are MYTHS, with no scientific backing.  All bar the very last one (which I will talk about shortly) but before I do, let’s dispel some of the misconceptions. Why should we do this? Put simply, because our beliefs and assumptions about stress (like anything else) can influence how attuned we are to recognising and acknowledging it, and what we do in response.

Stress Myth Busting 1

Dispelling The Common Myths Around Stress

“Stress is a choice” – no, it is not. Choice implies the freedom to opt between alternatives and a preference. Stress is a response (and a state) to perceived threat or challenge. It is ‘a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives.’ (World Health Organisation).

“Stress is always bad” not always! Heightened stress, particularly prolonged, is indeed not a good thing. It can leave you feeling really overwhelmed, which leads to a decrease in general motivation to do things. It is also well-evidenced that chronic stress can have a negative impact on your immune system, physiological functioning and mental wellbeing. However, lower levels of stress can also be adaptive:  this sort of stress gives you an increased sense of urgency, and can push you out of your comfort zone, towards reaching your potential and/or challenging yourself to overcome difficulty. It is worth noting that a normal stress response is also crucial for survival (i.e. mobilising our mind and body to remove ourselves from danger or overcome it, i.e. the fight-or-flight response). 

“Stress only affects adults”- not true; like adults, children and teenagers also experience stress; in fact stress is extremely common among teenagers and often goes hand in hand with anxiety among younger children. Given that it is also a natural human response (see above), it follows that all humans, large and small, will experience stress or have the capacity to do so. 

“Stress is all in the mind” – no, it is not. Stress as a state is both mental and physical. There exists a highly complex network of interactions between the brain and the body including our endocrine, immune and enteric nervous systems, and even gut microbiota.  The brain, though crucial to how we think, interpret threat/risk and demands and respond – cannot be isolated and identified as the sole basis of stress. 

What Happens on the Inside when we’re stressed?

When we encounter stress, our body produces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that trigger the ‘fight or flight response’, activate our immune system and set off a cascade of various bodily reactions. This helps us respond quickly to dangerous situations that need a quick response. ‘Danger’ can take a range of forms: actual physical threat, psychological threat, predicted threat etc. (the downside of our highly advanced, tricky human brains is that we can think quite far ahead and anticipate risk or danger even if it is not here now).

What are some of the typical signs to look out for?

Signs of stress, and how it feels, varies from person to person, but common ones to look out for include:

  • Feeling anxious, nervous or scared 
  • Experiencing a sense of mental and physical ‘pressure’
  • Feeling irritable 
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling nauseated
  • Butterflies in stomach
  • Digestive problems (e.g. diarrhoea or constipation)
  • Shallow, faster breathing or hyperventilating 
  • Muscular tension in the body
  • Faster heartbeat 
  • Sweating
  • Feeling ‘shaky’
  • Experiencing disruption to sleep, sexual function and appetite (decrease or increase)

Some research has linked long-term stress to gastrointestinal conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or stomach ulcers; conditions like cardiovascular disease; and alterations to memory and cognitive function. 

What makes us stressed?

It varies from person to person and depends on many things: some environmental (e.g. type of event, number of demands, availability of social support), some individual (e.g. tolerance levels for uncertainty, ability to self-soothe, sensitivity to pressure). Here are some common ones though – do any of these apply to you?

image 1

Stress vs Burnout…

Stressed man who would benefit from Stress Management Techniques

‘Burnout’ is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion; it is usually the culmination of a prolonged period of stress where there has been little opportunity for respite, relief or resetting. People working in high-pressure, physically or emotionally draining jobs may be particularly vulnerable to burnout, as well as those finding themselves having to juggle multiple roles such as childcare, finances and relationships. When long-term stress goes unchecked and burnout settles in, it can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. 

Useful links:

Mental Health Foundation


Rethink Mental Illness 


Mental Health UK 


The Sleep Charity 


Useful Apps:

  • Headspace 
  • Calm
  • Compassion UK 

If you are struggling with stress or any of areas highlighted in this post, you can reach out to Kasia using the following information:

Kasia Mullan Psychology



07808 016012

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