Understanding and Dealing With Stress by Clinical Psychologist Kasia Mullan | Part 2

We’re pleased to be bringing you a guest blog post from Clinical Psychologist Dr. Kasia Mullan. If you missed part one, you can find it here.

Part 02: Managing Stress and Self Care Tips

What can we do to help reduce and manage stress?

We’ve thought about what stress is, dispelled some common myths, and considered common triggers and signs to look out for. It’s crucial groundwork for what comes next: understanding how can we reduce stress (if not prevent it) and what we  can do to cope as effectively as possible.

I invite you to bring to mind the concept of ‘self-care’: what does this mean to you? What associations do you have with this phrase? 

Self-care, broadly speaking, means taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy, live well and do what you need to do to accomplish what you need and want in the day. Physically, mentally and spiritually. It means doing things that promote and preserve your overall health and wellbeing, in ways that are meaningful to you. Finding ways to manage and cope with stress sits firmly within this camp and will involve things that can help prevent stress build-up, as well as strategies to deal with it if it does.

Self Care Tip 1:

Identify your values and prioritise the things that align (in relationships, family life, work, education, personal development etc). Check in regularly with yourself: is what I am doing, and the tasks I say yes to, getting me closer or further away from my values and how I want to live my life? If the answer is yes, prioritise these and set realistic goals to keep them going. If the answer is no, de-prioritise and unhook from the things that are pulling you away from your values. If possible, give yourself permission to say ‘no’ to things that you really don’t want to do and where they don’t align with your core values. It’s like following a compass; try to remove obvious obstacles that are getting in the way. 

Self Care Tip 2:

Complete your own ‘stress bucket’: be aware of your tolerance threshold and limits when it comes to stress: it’s best to do this when you’re not feeling stressed, as you will be able to take a bigger perspective and reflect on it more effectively. Identify your main stressors and triggers, without judgement; how much ‘load’ can your bucket hold at this moment in time? (it might vary!, sometimes from day to day! So it’s not a one-off exercise). Which things usually tip your bucket over? Non-essential travel? Excess job responsibilities? Constant notifications from social media? Whatever it may be, big or small, the more ‘triggers’ you can bale out, the better your chances of keeping a balance between your resources and the demands upon your time and carrying a reasonable bucket without overburdening yourself. Then, make a list of all the things you do or have done (or would like to do!) that bring you pleasure, relaxation, fulfilment or a sense of mastery. Things that ‘fill your bucket’ with the positive stuff you need to reset and thrive. They don’t have to be ‘big’; it could be anything from savouring a cup of coffee for a few minutes, going for a walk outside in nature, playing with your dog or cooking a meal. Plan how you can incorporate these things into your day or week in a predictable way, even when other pressures build up; weekly planners or schedules can be helpful with this. 

Self Care Tip 3

Take care of your basic, essential needs: very often, when the demands of daily life are intense, our core needs such as the need for rest, sleep, nutrition and movement can be neglected. Yet we know that – without meeting these needs first – everything else up the hierarchy will be built on a rather shaky foundation. 

Sleep Hygine 1

Embrace a regular sleep routine, allowing enough time (ideally a minimum of 7 hours, although some people need more or less than this) to recharge. [There’s some great tips on how to do this here: THE SLEEP CHARITY]. Simple changes such as introducing a consistent bedtime and morning wake time, keeping the bedroom at a cooler temperature, enjoying a soothing evening ritual, switching off screens by a certain hour to wind down can make a big difference here. 

Warm up and cool down

Get active! There is plenty of research showing that exercise and movement – particularly out in nature – positively affects our mental as well as physical wellbeing. This is as true preventatively as it is reactively when it comes to stress management. Whichever form exercise takes for you, make it a priority wherever you can; bonus points if you can enjoy it and see it as a pleasure and an act of self-nurturing rather than a chore.  Team sports, going to the gym, walking the dog in the woods, walking with the pram, doing a yoga class, dancing in your kitchen… if it gets you moving, do it more. 

Leafy Greens

Nurture through nutrition: pay attention to what, when and how you eat to make sure that you are including the necessary vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients in your meals every day. It’s easy for this to slip when life’s challenges pile up, but the significance of a balanced diet  (or ‘nutritious and delicious’, as my four year old would say!) to our overall health cannot be emphasised enough. Just like you wouldn’t expect your car to run on an empty tank, you can’t expect your body or mind to function properly without adequate ‘fuel’. If you’re stuck for ideas or fear that healthy equals boring, you could seek out advice from a nutritionist, consider using tried and tested recipe ideas for easy balanced meals (often available for free in supermarkets and online) or batch-cook and get creative! 

If you find yourself drinking alcohol regularly, consider the relationship you have with this. Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it slows down our neural activity. It can interfere with our mood, thoughts and behaviour. For many people, there are close associations between alcohol and mental health, including the use of alcohol to mask or try to reduce symptoms of stress, yet in the long term this link can lead to dependency and cause further mental health issues. Watching your alcohol intake and reducing it, particularly in the absence of other coping strategies, is important to your overall wellbeing. 

Tips for coping ‘in the moment’:

While prevention is clearly key to long-term management of our stress levels, we will all find ourselves in a state of stress at one point or another. What do we do then? Here are my top 6 ‘hacks’ that you may find helpful when things feel like they are beginning to spiral somewhat. They won’t necessarily solve the source of the stress, but they can help to get us through the worst of the storm and anchor ourselves enough to take further steps as needed. 

Meditation to
  1. Soothing Rhythm Breathing: bring your attention to your breath, as you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Bring your breathing to a gentle, steady rhythm, with a slightly longer out-breath than in; imagine you are gently blowing on a candle without wanting to put the flame out completely, or inflating a balloon (not too strong or too fast or it will burst!). If your mind is starting to wander off, that’s ok, it’s what our brains do! Acknowledge it and bring attention back to the breath as many times as you need to. Repeat this cycle a few times.
  1. Orient yourself – if your mind is jumping ahead to all the things you need to do and you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by future demands before they are even here, orient yourself to the here and now; notice the space and time you are in; 
  1. Come back to your senses: what can you see now? What can you hear now? What can you touch? Some people find mindfulness practice can be immensely useful at orienting ourselves and training our attention to land meaningfully on what we are doing in the moment rather than projecting forward to everything that is piling pressure upon us externally. For others, carrying a physical ‘grounding object’, perhaps something that has a pleasant texture to the touch or that visually reminds you of calm and safety, can be useful also.
  1. Harness your imagination: visual imagery exercises can be wonderful tools to have at your disposal to regulate rising stress and a sense of threat in the moment. Imaging a peaceful, safe place (either somewhere you have actually been or a made-up one; or a hybrid version of the two!) and visualising it with as much sensory detail as possible is a common strategy used in therapy to help individuals regulate strong emotions. You could also visualise your ‘resource team’ stepping in to the picture – again, real or imagined – who symbolise protection and nurture to you and who are always in your corner. ‘Colour breathing’ is another very simple but powerful technique that can help to regulate strong emotions during stress: as the name suggests, you can think of a colour that you associate with calm and peace and visualise it as you breathe in; then, visualise breathing out a colour that you associate with stress. Repeat as necessary. 
  1. Ground yourself physically: press your feet firmly into the floor, whether you are sitting or standing. Curl and relax your fingers and toes. Practice progressive muscle relaxation to physically calm and ground yourself. 
  1. Take your thoughts to court: notice, if you can, any threat-focused assumptions and thoughts popping into your head in the moment. Maybe you’ve noticed a pattern to these, a tendency to think ‘I cannot cope, I will crumble, everyone will think I am weak’; our thinking patterns can be unhelpful and contribute to feelings of overwhelm and feeling defeated; a useful strategy is to treat our thoughts and assumptions at slight arms’ length: firstly, acknowledging that our thoughts and assumptions are not ‘facts’ per se. Secondly, what evidence is there to back them up? To dispute them? How strong is the evidence? Would it stand up in court? Finally, offering ourselves compassion: we think the way we think for a whole host of reasons, we can ‘unhook’ ourselves from it and show ourselves kindness even when the thoughts are trying to pull us in another direction. 

I hope that you find some of these helpful; pick and choose the strategies most suitable for you personally. Remember that strategies and techniques need repeating and practicing (like any other skill we learn) and there will be some trial-and-error before you find the thing that lands best for you. 

If you find that stress continues to significantly impact your daily life and self-help isn’t helping, do remember that professional help is also available to support you. See this as a proactive step towards improving your health. With the guidance of a therapist or counsellor, things can usually get back on track and there is no need to suffer in silence. 

Stress awareness month serves as a powerful reminder to us all to prioritise our mental well-being and cultivate healthy strategies for managing stress every month of the year. By incorporating some of the strategies above, as well as seeking professional help when needed, I hope you feel able to navigate stress more effectively and live  a happier, healthier life for the long-term.

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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