Recognising signs of psychological stress – and how best to talk about it

Posted by: NHS Horizons - Posted on:

Originally published by Leigh Kendall – 30th December 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented many challenges for our mental wellbeing as well as our physical health.  

You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental ill health condition to be experiencing challenges with your emotional wellbeing. Anxiety about the situation, isolation from other people, feeling overburdened by work for example are symptoms experienced by many.

People can often keep their worries to themselves because of things like fear of stigma, or thinking that other people ‘have it worse’. 

During September’s #Caring4NHSPeople wellbeing sessionDr Sonya Wallbank observed that changes in behaviour can give others an indication you’re struggling – it can sometimes be difficult to recognise in yourself.

Signs of psychological stress may make you feel:

  • Neglected and lonely, especially for those working at home
  • Irritable, aggressive, impatient or wound up
  • Overburdened, unable to cope
  • Anxious, nervous, unable to switch off

Psychological stress may make you behave in ways similar to this:

  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Constant worrying, with physical symptoms such as headaches, upset stomach
  • Avoidance of situations that are troubling you
  • Snapping, agitated with people
  • Eating, drinking more – not exercising or taking part in usual stress relievers.

Be a good colleague, friend. Keep an eye out for others and notice if people are changing their behaviour. Ask them if they’d like a chat.

That can be easier said than done, of course: knowing how best to respond to someone who is opening up to you can be difficult. This graphic by @ThePsychologyMum (on Instagram) is really useful with some tips on things to do and say.

  • First and foremost, make sure they know that their feelings matter, and that you’re there to listen to their worries
  • Tell them that you want to listen – this will help reassure them that they are not a burden
  • Listen without judgement (often people will hugely value someone to simply listen while they offload)
  • Be patient
  • Empathise, stand in their shoes. Show you’re listening by saying things like “I hear you’re telling me xxx”
  • Ask how you can help
  • You could direct them to the wealth of support available for NHS colleagues 

Some points of things to avoid:

  • Platitudes – while well-intended, platitudes (think phrases such as “Think of all the good things in your life” or “keep your chin up” are not only meaningless and unhelpful – they can also shut down the conversation)
  • Jumping in with solutions
  • Telling them how they should feel.