Coping with stress

Siân is now working with the British Dietetic Association as Professional Practice Manager. She previously worked as an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham. She has worked in a range of clinical areas, specialising in learning disabilities, palliative care and nutritional support.

Twitter@: siancunningham2

Siân Cunningham, MSc, RD, AFHEA

Professional Practice Manager, BDA

As a student Dietitian or newly qualified practitioner (NQP) you will be faced with stressful situations. Placements, coursework deadlines (often more than one!), final dissertations, job searching and successful applications culminating in your first year of practice as a NQP certainly keeps you busy! On top of this, many other aspects of your life, which may include caring responsibilities, personal relationships, financial worries and ill health, can add significantly to the list of things that might cause you to feel stressed.

Selfcare is important and as a registered healthcare professional, did you know that you have a professional responsibility to take care of yourself!

The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) standards of proficiency state that 'to be able to care for your service users, you must take care of yourself'. They state that registrants need to be able to look after their own health and wellbeing and to seek appropriate support where it is necessary. (1)

When you are under stress it can be hard to remember to do this and if you are not mindful, selfcare can quickly fall off your to do list to be replaced by other seemly more important things.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines stress as 'a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. (2) Some stress is normal, and some people may feel that they do well under pressure, but too much stress or ongoing (Chronic) stress can lead to negative effects on your mind and body, affecting your physical and mental health.

Recognising the signs of stress

How we respond to stress and the actions we decide to take can make a big difference to our overall well-being. Remember you and your health matter!

You can support your physical and mental well-being by learning how to spot when you are becoming stressed and by putting strategies in place to prevent being overwhelmed. We all get stressed, and it is not a sign of weakness or that you are not good or clever enough! It’s a sign that you need to put some steps in place to prevent things from getting worse. 

Signs of stress will vary from person to person. You may feel tired, sad, anxious, or quick to anger. You may find it harder to concentrate, and experience physical symptoms, such as exhaustion, headaches, pains and stomach issues. You may also struggle to sleep. Ongoing (chronic) stress can also make existing health problems much worse, and we may be more likely to increase our use of unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking, smoking and vaping.

For those of you (and there are many of us, you are not alone!) who already experience anxiety, depression or another mental health condition, stressful situations can exacerbate your condition and it may mean that you need to visit your GP or mental health provider. It’s important to do this sooner rather than later and it's not a sign of weakness or incompetence!

Managing stress levels

What works to manage stress will vary from person to person but there are some things you can build into your routine to help prevent stress and to help manage the symptoms. These include:

  • Having a good routine
  • Eating regularly
  • Having a healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Scheduling some downtime to spend time doing an activity you enjoy
  • Spending time with friends and family whose company you enjoy
  • Getting enough sleep is really important (no sitting up on devices till the early hours) and you could investigate ‘sleep hygiene’ if getting enough sleep is an issue for you!

The WHO’s stress management guide, Doing what matters in times of stress,  is a useful tool, and you should find out what support is available within your university or workplace. Expect that you will at some point experience stress, and knowing about things that are in place to support you in advance can help you if and when that time comes for extra support.

You may find that stress reduces over time as you become used to the situation and learn coping strategies. Your first few weeks of placement or a new job may feel stressful until you become accustomed to the new environment and routine. Give yourself time and don’t expect to know everything. Talk to peers and your supervisors - and don’t be afraid to ask for support if you need it!

UCAS has a section on their website all about mental health and well-being from managing finances to exam stress. Take a look here...


  1. The Health and Care Professions Council  https://www.hcpc-uk.org/standards/meeting-our-standards/health-safety-and-wellbeing/maintaining-your-health-and-wellbeing/ [accessed 18/05/24]
  2. The World Health Organisation https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/stress#:~:text=Stress%20can%20be%20defined%20as,experiences%20stress%20to%20some%20degree [accessed 18/05/24]