What is stress?

What is stress?

4 November 2020

Everyone has stress.  Some stress is good for us.  It helps us to respond well to changes in life, it helps us to get things done and helps us protect ourselves from harm.  However, too much stress can make us feel anxious and have an impact on our health and relationships.  People with existing mental health conditions are even more vulnerable to stress and can find it harder to cope.  And, this year, Stress Awareness Day falls on the very eve of the second national Covid lockdown, so it couldn’t be more timely for us to focus on helping people to manage their stress levels.

“I get stressed when things get out of perspective – too much work, thinking too far ahead.”

The aim of Stress Awareness Day is to raise awareness of stress and reduce the stigma that often surrounds it.  It’s also a chance for people to recognise the causes of stress, the signs to watch out for and ways to manage stress levels if they get too high.  Luckily there are always things that can be done to help people reduce their levels of stress and, hopefully, the reassurance that such techniques are available will kick start a reduction in feelings of stress in itself.

It’s not unusual to feel too stressed

Almost anything in our daily lives, work or relationships can cause stress.  Even seemingly small issues can cause stress if they go on for a long time.  Some people are more affected by stress than others depending on their personality, upbringing, work situation, home life or mental wellbeing.

Even seemingly positive life events such as having a baby, getting married, getting promoted at work or starting a new job can cause stress.  If people feel stressed in these situations they may struggle to understand why and find it difficult to talk to others about it.

“I’ve never been more stressed in my life than the six months leading up to my wedding.  Everyone kept asking me if I was happy and expecting me to be excited all the time, but I just couldn’t feel it. I ended up getting really ill.”

Other triggers of stress include:

  • Losing your job or long-term unemployment
  • Getting married or divorced
  • Not sleeping well
  • Being diagnosed with an illness or having long term health issues
  • Money worries
  • Moving house
  • Work problems
  • Having a job interview
  • Being bullied
  • Someone close to you passing away
  • Problems looking after children
  • Being evicted from your home
  • Family or relationship problems
  • Organising a complicated event, like a group holiday
  • Studying, meeting deadlines and taking exams
  • Relationships with friends and neighbours
  • Not having enough work, activities or change in your life
  • Times of uncertainty.

“My breakdown was due to having a stressful job as a project manager and dealing with a marriage break up and subsequent divorce.”

There might be one big thing causing stress, but stress can also be caused by a build-up of small pressures.  This might make it harder for people to pinpoint exactly what is making them feel stressed, or to explain it to other people.

We’re all different, so a situation that doesn’t bother one person may be a source of stress to another.  For example, if you’re feeling confident or usually enjoy public speaking, you might find that giving a speech in front of people feels comfortable and fun.  But if you’re feeling low or usually prefer not to be the centre of attention, this situation might cause you to experience signs of stress.

Stress can affect people in many different ways

Not all of these will apply to everyone but if you recognise any of these symptoms then you could be suffering with stress.

  • Changes in physical or mental behaviour
  • Headaches
  • Worry about future or the past 
  • Crying
  • Sweating 
  • Imagining the worst 
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Stomach problems
  • Being forgetful
  • Biting your nails
  • Muscle tension or pain 
  • Not concentrating 
  • Avoiding others
  • Feeling tired or dizzy
  • Feeling irritable 
  • Sleep problems
  • Sexual problems
  • Racing thoughts
  • Rushing or avoiding tasks
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Going over and over things in your mind
  • Drinking or smoking more
  • Dry mouth 
  • Making mistakes 
  • Being irritable
  • Short of breath
  • Feeling low and unable to enjoy yourself
  • Feeling anxious or depressed
  • Being snappy
  • Like you’ve lost your sense of humour
  • Fear and a sense of dread.

“My head is tight and all my thoughts are whizzing round in different directions and I can’t catch them.”

Stress and mental health

Stress can cause mental health problems, and make existing problems worse.  For example, those struggling to manage feelings of stress might develop other mental health issues like anxiety or depression.  In turn, such mental health problems can cause stress.  People can find coping with the day-to-day symptoms of a mental health problem, as well as potentially needing to manage medication, heath care appointments or treatments, becomes a source of stress in itself.

This can start to feel like a vicious circle, and it might be hard to see where stress ends resulting in mental health issues.

“When I’m stressed I just feel like I’m on the verge of a breakdown.”

Stress and physical health

Sometimes the first indicators about being stressed can be physical, such as tiredness, headaches or an upset stomach.

There could be many reasons for this, as when we feel stressed we often find it hard to sleep or eat well, and poor diet and lack of sleep can both affect our physical health.  This in turn can make us feel more stressed emotionally.  Also, when we feel anxious, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline (this is the body’s automatic way of preparing to respond to a threat, sometimes called the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response).  If you’re often stressed then you’re probably producing high levels of these hormones which can make you feel physically unwell and could affect your health in the longer term.

Clearly if someone is worried about their physical health it will affect their mental health too.

There are many practical steps we can take to manage our stress levels and our overall mental health

Exercise helps to relieve stress.  It also helps us stay healthy which further helps to reduce the burden of stress.  There are lots of ways to exercise and people enjoy different things: cycling, walking, running, team activities or going to the gym.  Even doing housework or gardening are ways to exercise.

Eating a balanced diet fuels our bodies so we’re able to better cope with the stress.

A better sleep routine.  Adults need an average of 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.  If we’re stressed out, we’re most likely getting way less, and it’s probably pretty low-quality sleep.  This will cause us to be even more stressed.  A serious commitment to going to bed earlier and getting more restful sleep can work wonders for our stress levels.  A new yoga or meditation program also helps to get more sleep.  Before bed, we should all be turning off our screens and various devices in order to properly wind down, for example, by reading.

Keeping a stress diary for a few weeks is particularly helpful if we don’t know what is causing our stress.  It can help us identify things we can change.  Try writing down what happens just before or after you feel stressed.  This helps to identify the triggers for our stress.

Talk to someone.  Telling someone how we are feeling may help with stress.  It can help to ‘offload’ our worries and provide emotional support.  You may feel comfortable talking to someone you know.  Or you might feel more comfortable talking to someone who doesn’t know you.  You could always speak to your GP, call an emotional support line or see a counsellor.  

Mindfulness helps with many mental health issues.  Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which combines mindfulness, meditation and yoga with a particular focus on reducing stress. 

“Using mindfulness helps me to just allow some space to breathe and focus on the present moment.”

You can find more information about stress www.mind.org.uk and www.rethink.org .