This article was updated on 4 November 2020.

  • November 2-6 is International Stress Awareness Week.
  • The pandemic has created an unusually stressful environment for a large number of people.
  • The World Health Organization has created an illustrated guide to managing stress, including audio exercises.
  • Around the world, healthcare systems are facing unprecedented strain, with concerns that restricting access to mental health support will store up problems for the future.

From new COVID-19 lockdowns in Europe to the US presidential election, the world can feel an uncertain and potentially confusing place right now.

Whether you’re working from home or considering a holiday season without friends or family, this uncertainty and change could lead to stress and anxiety.

This week is International Stress Awareness Week (2-6 November). It’s organised by the International Stress Management Association (ISMA), whose chair explained why it's important. “Particularly in challenging times, ISMA’s aim is to keep stress, mental health and wellbeing high on the international agenda,” Carole Spiers said.

And, if you’re wondering about how to manage your own stress, the World Health Organization (WHO) has some advice.

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Doing What Matters in Times of Stress: An Illustrated Guide
Image: World Health Organization

The WHO has released a new book – Doing What Matters in Times of Stress: An Illustrated Guide – which lays out some strategies for dealing with feelings of anxiety and stress. These include ways to ground yourself, focusing on your surroundings and what you are doing rather than getting caught up in negative thoughts. Of course – it’s far from just COVID-19 concerns that can lead to stress.

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Stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways.
Image: World Health Organization

The guide offers up advice and exercises, centered around breathing and relaxation, to help you refocus and engage with the world. The exercises can be followed using the pictures and instructions, or are available as an audio guide. Regular practising of these techniques can reduce feelings of stress, the WHO says.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

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Don't let stress take control.
Image: World Health Organization.

Identifying the problem

The guide also recognizes that coping and grounding techniques do not get to the root of the stress and negative thoughts. As such, it dives into ways to identify the underlying thoughts and feelings.

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Do you even know if you're stressed?
Image: World Health Organization

By living and acting on our values, we are more able to influence the immediate world around us and the situations we encounter. The book uses the example that you may not be able to stop all the fighting if your country is at war, but you can stop arguing with people in your community, and instead act on your values. The way you act may influence others around you. And if you do not take care of yourself it will be hard to care for others and put your values into action.

Mental health services under strain

Evidence from previous quarantines show the potential psychological impact of lockdowns. With many healthcare systems facing unprecedented strain, experts have warned about the risks of putting mental health care on the backburner. It may be harder for some people to access support and their usual ways of coping may not be available. And there are fears that people are staying away from healthcare providers until they reach crisis point, storing up a flood of untreated mental illness cases.

Mental health charity Mind reported in May that nearly a quarter of people in the UK who had tried to access mental health support had failed to get help. Appointments were cancelled, accessing medical professionals was difficult, they were turned away from crisis services, and there were issues assessing digital alternatives.

With different communities facing uneven impacts on their mental health, and unequal access to support, governments are being called on to ensure mental health services don’t regress.