ARE you stressed? If so, you're in good company. It's been argued we are in the grip of a stress epidemic – one recent study suggested four out of five adults were stressed during a typical week, while almost one in 10 were stressed all the time.

Stress, of course, has an important function in all our lives. But high levels of chronic stress can make people vulnerable to poor mental health. As Paul Gardner, senior lecturer in psychology at St Andrews University, puts it: “A degree of stress affects our immune system in a positive way as it helps us to develop appropriate responses, but distress [as a result of stress] can cause damage psychologically and physiologically.”

Many people in the modern, bustling 24/7 culture are finding their stress levels less than healthy. Excess stress, and the difficulty in dealing with it is the top reason logged for calls to Scottish mental health helpline Breathing Space, with more than 20 per cent of 7,500 monthly calls from stressed-out Scots.

It's no wonder, then, that stress is the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week, which kicks off later this month, on May 14.

“Over a long period of time stress can become difficult to deal with,” says Toni Giugliano, Scottish public affairs manager of the Mental Health Foundation, which co-ordinates Mental Health Awareness Week. But the outlook doesn't have to bleak. Building emotional resilience can help all of us cope. We asked the experts how.

Let go of perfect

One solution is to lower our expectations and stop aiming for perfection. It can be difficult, admits Nelum Jayakoby, mindfulness teacher at Glasgow Mindfulness Centre, given the unrealistic expectations of those around us, such as employers. “People are having to take sick leave because the work load is too high – they can't possibly cope with it,” she says. “People are trying to be perfect but it's not achievable. What we try to teach them through our mindfulness course is that it's enough to do the best you can do. They have to let go of the things that they can't do.”

Many of her clients also admit that the pressure to be perfect is underlined by social media – those happy, high-achieving selfies can trigger insecurities. The solution? Limit your online time and talk to real people instead.

Be kinder to yourself

Ever muttered self-critical curses when things don't turn out as planned? It turns out it's not helpful. Professor Ewan Gillon, clinical director and chartered psychologist at First Psychology Scotland, which has counselling centres throughout Scotland says our inner monologue – what is often known as “self-talk” – is important and can frame the way that we see the world.

He advises that we try to avoid “catastrophic, black and white thinking” and aim to see the shades of grey. “It's helpful to be less judgemental of ourselves,” he says. “The first thing we can do is have a more positive monologue. We're all very ready to notice when we have not done well.

“We're not so quick to acknowledge the positive. Think about how you would speak to a friend or colleague and use that as a model. A lot of the time we say things to ourselves that we would not say to anyone else.”

Speaking of friends, our social networks also matter. It's proven that people with social support have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which translates as fewer cardiovascular problems and a better immune function. In other words, spending time with loved ones or making new connections is an important way of looking after your health.

Allow your mind time to catch up

Modern life moves fast which, some say, means our brains have multiple “background programmes” operating 24/7. Most of us are on constant high alert for the “ping” of a notification on our mobile phone from multiple messaging services, and poised to act accordingly.

“If we have all of this swirling in our minds it can be very difficult to feel at peace,” says Kelsang Tangpa, teacher at Edinburgh's Kadampa Meditation Centre. “If we are distracted all the time our peace of mind is weak. That means that to sit still and appreciate the experience of what is around us – even on a bus journey for example – is uncomfortable.”

Technology has allowed us to do so many things so fast. We might be able to order a taxi to pick us up within seconds with a tap on an app, but our “internal conditions” - or our own ability to process this – have not kept pace.

The answer, Tangpa claims, is to practice meditation and learn to settle and focus the mind. He claims a settled mind can cope with addressing fears and develop a broader awareness of others, which in turn helps reduce isolation and increase compassion.

Get outdoors more

An impressive body of studies from across the globe have repeatedly demonstrated that time spent in nature is essential for human health. A Japanese evaluation of Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Bathing – a practice of spending mindful time in the forest introduced as a state-sponsored therapy in 1980s Japan – measured 420 people in 35 different forest surroundings and found a 12 per cent drop in cortisol levels when compared with a group spending time in an urban setting. Researchers also recorded a six per cent decrease in heart rate as well as a reduction in blood pressure and sympathetic nervous activity, which controls fight or flight response.

With surveys showing that in the UK people spend as little as four hours outside a week, it's clear that action is needed. The good news is that in Scotland we are surrounded by green space. Why not take your lunch to your local park, leave the car at home and walk or cycle home, join a group at your local community garden, or spend some time in the hills at the weekend?

Be thankful for small mercies

Forget the idea of the high-powered company boss being under pressure. There is clear evidence that those under the most stress are at the lower end of the social strata. If you're struggling to pay the bills, living on a zero-hours contract or in fear of being sanctioned, and have little control over your own situation, stress can be hard to escape.

Paul Gardner agrees that there are structural problems causing stress that need to be addressed: “There is no doubt that poverty, social deprivation, discrimination, prejudice and inequality exacerbate the problems associated with early life negative experiences and make those choices seem limited.”

The reality is that equality is good for almost all of us. Researchers such as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, have highlighted that the most equal societies in the world not only report populations with lower stress levels but better outcomes in terms of physical health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity and child wellbeing, resulting in an improved standard of living for all. So get out there and start campaigning.