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By Andy Gilbert-Dunnings, Qualification Development Manager and Workplace Wellbeing Champion, Active IQ

We often hear people say they are feeling ‘stressed’. Provided the stress passes when that short-term situation or occasion ceases, there’s nothing much to worry about. This kind of stress is our body’s natural ‘fight of flight’ response.

However, if feelings of anxiety, a racing mind, nervous energy, inability to focus, difficulty catching our breath or feeling our heart pounding are present for any length of time, a potential physical and mental health problem could be brewing and it’s time to act.

Stress is one of the most easily understood mental health states, and one which we’ve probably all experienced ourselves. In some circumstances and in small doses stress can be a good thing. However, a number of serious physical health issues such as cardiovascular illness can result if we don’t address stress.

Next month sees the 30th annual Stress Awareness Month, spearheaded by the Stress Management Society, which serves as a timely reminder for us to check in with ourselves, colleagues and clients and be honest about how we’re feeling.

As professionals working in fitness, we should be more mindful than most about seeing stress in our clients and colleagues. But do we know all the signs and what can we do to help them?

Spotting the signs of stress

Many of us are familiar with the fight or flight response, which is an evolutionary response to stress, the body readied to take on the threat or run away. Demonstrating agitation and aggression towards others could be a ‘fight’ response. Meanwhile, a ‘flight’ response could be removing ourselves from the ‘threat’.

Our body may respond physically to stress by freezing and dysregulation. The energy mobilised by the stressors gets ‘locked’ into the nervous system and we ‘freeze’. Holding our breath and shallow breathing are both forms of freeze.

Common symptoms

Everyone is different and we don’t all feel stress the same way. But these are the most common symptoms, usually with a few being experienced simultaneously:

  • Aches and pains – especially in the neck and shoulders
  • Feeling like your heart is pounding
  • Feeling like your mind is racing
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Being irritable and short tempered
  • Headaches or feeling dizzy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling overwhelmed with ‘no end in sight’
  • Grinding your teeth/clenching your jaw
  • Digestive problems.

Stopping stress in its tracks

Stress manifests itself physically, emotionally and behaviourally. Here are a few suggestions to try with your clients, your colleagues and yourself.

Physical activity: this produces endorphins which reduce the negative effects of stress. Good physical health and activity have a positive impact on cardiovascular, digestive and immune systems which help protect the body from harmful effects of stress.  Physical activity can also improve our mood, reduce anxiety and help us sleep.

Breathing exercises: these can restore a sense of calm and bring emotions back under control. The simplest exercise is to stand with feet hip-width apart, let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it. Breathe in gently through the nose and out through the mouth.

Mind over matter

Being in control of our thoughts increases our ability to find solutions and deal with stress more effectively. However, if feeling stressed is combined with experiencing poor mental health, we may have faulty cognitions and therefore interpret stress as overwhelming, leaving us unable to cope.

Mindfulness: think of it as being ‘in the moment’ to bring your mind to focus on what you’re doing right here, right now.

Mindful walking or running: notice the feeling of your body moving. Think about the feeling of your feet or hands against different textures on the ground or surfaces, and the different smells that are around.

Mindful eating and drinking: pay attention to the taste, sight and textures of your food and drink. When drinking a hot drink, focus on the temperature of the liquid and how it feels on your tongue.

Mindful meditation: sit in a quiet place and concentrate on your breathing. Think about the moment, the sensations in your body. Bring your mind back to the present if it starts to wander.

Body scan: move your attention slowly through different parts of the body, from the top of your head moving to the end of your toes.

Upskilling to help clients manage stress

Any of these techniques will help clients manage their stress and focus fully on their physical activity sessions with you. If you’re concerned that they may need additional support to manage their stress, signpost them to expert advice, support them to make contact and gently check in how they’re doing.

To upskill or refresh your knowledge, the Active IQ Level 2 Award in Mental Awareness includes information on the causes and symptoms of stress and provides strategies for managing stress.

Timely challenge

The Stress Management Society is running a free 30-day challenge during Stress Awareness Month to encourage people to choose one action each for their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing for every day.

Working on the principle that it takes 30 days to turn an action into a habit, the challenge will help positive behaviour change.

As with mental health, awareness of stress and simple helpful strategies will prove invaluable. I’ve signed up and hope you will too – just visit:


Active IQ is a member of the ukactive Strategic Partner Group – find out more here.


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ukactive.