Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed. This can happen when many demands are placed on us or when we are faced with new or challenging situations. Stress can make us feel under a lot of pressure, or feel isolated, targeted, or out of control about a situation. Most people deal with stress at some time in their lives. How stressed we feel will vary depending on the situation. Something that is extremely stressful for one person may not be stressful for someone else.
Feeling a little bit stressed is not always a bad thing. A small amount of stress can help us get important tasks done and attend important meetings on time, but too much stress can have a negative impact on our physical and mental health.
Signs and symptoms
Stress may cause a number of changes to mental and physical health and general behaviour. These changes can range from mild to severe. Not everyone who is experiencing stress will have all of these symptoms.
Mental effects of stress: Difficulty concentrating, unable to relax, worrying constantly, memory problems, moodiness, low confidence difficulty making decisions, unhappiness, anxiety, depression.
Physical effects on the body: Increased sweating, rapid breathing, increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, headaches, body aches and pains, more likely to get colds and other illness, upset stomach, tiredness.
Changes in behaviour: Not sleeping well, eating too much or too little, loss of sex drive, withdrawing from friends or family, crying or often teary, nervous habits such as nail biting or grinding teeth, increase in alcohol, caffeine, cigarette use, spending or shopping too much, neglecting work or family responsibilities.
What causes stress?
When we experience stress, brain chemicals (hormones, such as adrenaline) surge through our body, causing the physical changes described above. These hormones act like a built-in alarm system that protects us and prepares our body to take action.
There are many causes of stress and not everyone gets stressed by the same things. Stress can be caused by a single, significant event or issue, or by a series of smaller things that build up over time. It can sometimes be hard to know or explain to others what is causing stress, especially if it has happened gradually. Stress is often caused by both external factors and internal triggers.
External factors that can cause stress:
- Major life events such as the death of a loved one or divorce
- Family illness or health problems
- Financial issues
- Problems at work or school
- Relationship worries
- Living in an unsafe, isolated or unhealthy physical environment
- Having carer responsibilities
- Social isolation
- Concern for the future
- Experiencing discrimination, hate or abuse
Internal triggers to stress:
These come from the way we think about situations. Internal stress can be brought on by things like worrying about failing or disappointing others, or by self-criticism. Talking negatively about yourself can have a negative effect on your mental and physical health.
How is stress diagnosed?
If the signs and symptoms described above are not going away and it is difficult to function at work, school, home or socially, help is needed.
The Symptom Checker might help to identify the level of stress and options for help.
Professional help should be sought if stress is disrupting your daily life. Severe or prolonged stress can develop into an anxiety disorder or depression and may also affect physical health, including heart health and blood pressure. With help, recovery is possible.
How is stress treated?
Everyone’s experience of stress can be different so it helps to know what makes you stressed and the best ways to manage this. Being prepared can make it easier to get through stressful periods.
Steps you can take:
The steps listed below won’t make all stress go away – some causes of stress are beyond our control – but trying these ideas might improve emotional well-being and make it easier to cope with some of life’s challenging events.
- Look after yourself by eating healthy food
- Exercise regularly
- Limiting alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes and avoid other drugs
- Stick to a regular sleeping routine
- Try relaxation techniques such as massage, meditation or breathing exercises.
- Other relaxing activities include listening to music, gardening or walking in nature.
- Taking a break from electronic devices (computer, phone, TV).
When feeling overwhelmed because you have so much to do, try:
- Making a list of tasks and ordering them by importance
- Asking other people to do some of the tasks
- Letting family and friends know about your stress and ask them to help
The situations that cause stress can often be fixed, leading to positive changes. For example, work can change, new relationships can be formed, finances can improve.
When stress is taking over, it may be necessary to speak to a professional. Chronic stress can develop into anxiety or depression, which may need a different treatment approach. A doctor or therapist can help figure out the cause of the stress and the best ways to manage it. They can work out if the symptoms are caused by stress or by another condition. Help is always available.