What is stress?

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. It happens when you feel unable to cope with the demands placed upon you.

We can find situations like this intimidating, so to prepare us for a potential threat, the body releases several stress chemicals, which:

  • activate the ‘fight or flight’ system – this increases your breathing, heart rate and blood pressure to prepare you for danger; and
  • suppress the ‘rest and digest’ system – these functions aren’t needed when you’re fighting or running for your life.

This survival mechanism was more useful to our ancestors, if they needed to run from a predator. Although we don’t face as many life-threatening situations now, our brains can sometimes misinterpret stressors as dangerous, triggering the response.

There are two types of stress:

  • Acute stress: In small doses, stress can give you the burst of energy you need to help you deal with a high-pressure situation. As long as you give yourself chance to rest afterwards, your stress hormone levels should return to normal.
  • Chronic stress: When stress accumulates, and you don’t give yourself time to recover, you can feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. This can put a strain on your physical and emotional wellbeing.

What causes stress?

Stress is very individual. What one person might find stressful, another might find thrilling, for example public speaking or extreme sports.

While some stressors can be environmental, like deadlines and traffic jams, psychological factors can also play a role, such as worries about work, money, relationships and health.

Life changes can also be sources of stress, such as starting a new job, moving house and getting married. Even seemingly enjoyable events like holidays and Christmas can be stressors. It usually comes down to a change to your normal routine.

What are the symptoms of stress?

Chronic stress can have many symptoms and affect people in different ways.

It can have mental and behavioural symptoms such as:

  • feeling moody and irritable
  • difficulty concentrating
  • being forgetful
  • being indecisive
  • loss of appetite or eating too much
  • insomnia or sleeping too much.

It can also lead to physical symptoms such as:

  • faster heartbeat
  • sweating
  • headaches
  • muscle pain
  • stomach problems
  • weight gain.

Stress also suppresses your immune system, meaning you’re more likely to get ill.

How is stress treated?

There are a range of things you can do to help manage your stress:

  • Make time for the things you enjoy
  • Exercise regularly to boost your mood
  • Try relaxing activities like breathing exercises, yoga and meditation to activate your ‘rest and digest’ system
  • Improve your bedtime routine so you can switch off easier and get the sleep you need to recover
  • Speak to friends and family for support
  • Avoid ‘de-stressing’ with nicotine, caffeine and alcohol, as these can make your symptoms worse.

For more advice, read: 8 easy ways to combat stress.

If you need extra support, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help you change what you think, feel and do in stressful situations.

CBT is a form of talking therapy that teaches you to become your own therapist. This allows you to challenge negative thoughts in times of stress and develop a more positive outlook.

Related conditions

Chronic stress can lead to the following conditions, and many of the symptoms can overlap:

  • Anxiety – A feeling of unease, worry and dread, it has all the symptoms of stress, but also panic attacks.
  • Depression – Similar symptoms to stress in terms of sleeping problems, no appetite and lack of concentration, but also involves feeling down or sad for long periods of time and a loss of interest in pleasurable activities.