We all feel stressed from time to time, however, for some people the pressure they are facing in their daily life becomes too much. By understanding stress and how to recognise our own personal warning signs we can find ways in which to deal with stress to help lead happier and more fulfilling lives.
What is stress?
Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. We all need a certain amount of pressure to function well, as pressure helps people to reach their peak efficiency. Research shows that pressure can increase our drive to meet deadlines and achieve targets. However, when pressure becomes too intense and prolonged, this can lead to more serious symptoms and problems such as anxiety, depression, headaches, weight gain/loss, sleep disturbance, sweating, abdominal pain, chest pain and panic attacks.
Stress can have a profound effect on someone’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It can cause them to feel anxious, out of control and unable to cope. This can lead to feeling irritable or constantly worrying about situations and can even affect a person’s self-esteem. Acute stress might come from any area of life, including work, home, relationships, illness or finances.
Causes of stress
There are a wide range of causes of stress and they will differ from one person to another – what may cause stress for one person may be taken in their stride by another person.
However, common causes of stress are bereavement, getting married, divorce, debt, ill-health, moving house, preparing for and sitting exams, changing jobs and problems at work.
Pressure of work is a common cause of stress, perhaps worsened by staff shortages or absences, along with problematic relationships with work colleagues or a manager, restructures, other major changes and/or worries about losing one’s job. People are often reluctant to ask for help for fear of demonstrating weakness or appearing to be unable to cope.
It is important to recognise when you are stressed so you can steps to deal with it. There are many common signs and symptoms – see our list below of stress symptoms.
To see whether you are stressed you could try the Stress Management Society’s online stress test.
If a majority of the symptoms below apply to you, consider taking action to tackle the stress.
- asthma or breathlessness
- chest pains
- cramps or muscle spasms
- fainting spells
- headaches or migraine
- heart attack
- high blood pressure
- peptic ulcers
- rheumatoid arthritis
- sexual difficulties
- skin disorders
- tendency to sweat
- sleep problems
- recurring illness
- tremors and nervous tics.
- loss of interest in others
- denying there is a problem
- dread of the future
- fearing failure
- feeling alone
- feeling neglected
- increased irritability and a loss of interest in others
- heightened sensitivity to criticism
- loss of concentration
- loss of sense of humour
- taking no interest in life
- thinking you are bad or ugly
- unable to show true feelings.
- avoiding difficult situations
- craving for food
- difficulty getting to sleep and early morning waking
- drinking and smoking more
- lack of appetite
- restlessness/unable to settle
- difficulty concentrating
- lots of things on the go
- signs of tension, such as nail biting
- unable to make decisions.
The stress symptoms mentioned above can be short-lived if you take steps to relieve yourself from stress or pro-actively avoid becoming stressed.
If you experience continuous stress and find that the symptoms do not go away, it could be a sign of depression. In which case, it would be advisable for you to consult your GP. Seeking professional help early may potentially avoid further psychological problems such as post traumatic stress disorder or cumulative stress disorder which can be caused by continual stress .
The body’s reaction
When we are under stress our muscles tense, our blood pressure rises and the heart beats faster. We breathe faster to speed up the time it takes to get oxygen into our blood. To divert as much blood as possible to our limbs our digestion is interrupted, saliva dries up and the muscles to the bowel and bladder relax which allows it to release waste and make the body lighter. More sweat is produced and the body becomes flooded with stress hormones. All of this is a natural reaction in the body to allow for the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. Once the threat has passed the body should relax and return to its normal state.
Our ancient physical emergencies have now been replaced by perceived modern day psychological threats. However, instead of using these stress hormones in emergencies, we now activate them all the time and often don’t give our bodies or minds sufficient time to rest after each stress-filled moment.
Dealing with stress
The act of taking control and finding a solution that specifically meets your needs is in itself empowering. Try to identify those things that you can control and concentrate on dealing with them.
Prioritise and manage your time
If you are feeling overwhelmed and cannot see a solution, try listing all the things you need to do and then prioritise them. Is there anything you can remove from the list? Identify which ones you have to do yourself and whether you can ask someone else to take something on.
For each task or problem, try brainstorming ways to tackle the first bit of the problem. Think about what advice you would give someone else or what advice they would give you. Write a plan with small, easy steps. Think about any obstacles that may get in the way and look at methods of combatting them. Focus on dealing with one chunk at a time and avoid the temptation to race ahead and try to solve everything at once. By breaking your problems down, they will feel much more manageable.
Exercise won’t make your stress disappear, but it will reduce some of the emotional intensity that you’re feeling, clearing your thoughts and enabling you to deal with your problems more calmly as well as increasing your feeling of well-being. It helps to dispense the adrenalin that builds up in the body as a result of a stressful situation. Exercising outside is particularly beneficial, so even if you can only take a walk in the park it can have a positive effect on your stress levels. For further information about exercise, see our Exercise fact sheet.
Connect with others
Talking to someone else can be a great help. A good support network of colleagues, friends and family can help you see things in a different way and gain perspective on a situation.
Have some ‘me time’
It is important to take some time just for you, to socialise, relax or exercise. Prioritise this time. Some examples are: have a meal with family/friends, take the children to the park, read a book, take up a new hobby.