Everything you need to know about stress

Young girl with dark hair and green jumper looking stressed, holding her head in her hands.

Feeling stressed is a normal human experience, and actually helps us to overcome challenges that we know we can handle – but it’s supposed to be a short-term response, not a constant state of being.

However, if you’re experiencing stress on a constant basis, this can have negative effects on your physical and mental health – so it’s important to know how to manage it.

In this article, we’ll cover:

What is stress?

Stress is the common physical response to challenging or new situations. The body’s stress response, commonly called ‘fight or flight’, is a helpful way our bodies have adapted to respond to danger.

Stress is often thought of as a negative thing, but we actually need the body’s stress response – the human body has evolved to have this as a survival method in order to keep us safe. If you’re facing a challenge, your body releases stress hormones to keep you alert, and resources are activated in your body to help you either stay and confront the challenge, or get to safety as quickly as possible.

When you experience a ‘stressor’ (the environmental situation that you’re facing), the body produces increased quantities of the chemicals cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These chemicals trigger physical reactions such as:

  • increased blood pressure

  • heightened muscle preparedness

  • sweating

  • heightened alertness

  • increased heart rate.

These reactions all improve our ability to respond to a potentially hazardous or challenging situation. But if you experience these symptoms of stress all the time, it can have serious effects on your long-term health.

When this happens, it’s time to take steps to manage your stress to ensure you’re able to function well at work, at school and at home.

How to tell if you’re stressed

The signs and effects of stress are different for everyone. Learn about some common symptoms and signs of stress below.

Symptoms and signs of stress

Symptoms and signs of stress include:

  • sweating

  • heightened alertness

  • increased heart rate

  • increased blood pressure

  • heightened muscle preparedness

  • back or chest pain

  • cramps or muscle spasms

  • fainting

  • headaches

  • nausea or digestive problems

  • pins and needles

  • decreased or changes to sex drive

  • anger

  • burnout

  • concentration issues

  • fatigue

  • difficulty relaxing

  • nervousness or anxiety

  • a feeling of insecurity

  • feeling like you’re constantly under pressure

  • feeling overwhelmed

  • feel down or depressed

  • mood swings

  • forgetfulness

  • restlessness.

There’s also behavioural changes that can happen as a result of stress, such as sleeping difficulties, withdrawal from family and friends, increased use of alcohol and drugs, and more.

You can learn more about the signs of stress here.

Common causes of stress

Everyone experiences stress differently, and people react differently to stressors. So, something that one person may find extremely stressful might not have any effect on another person.

However, the following are some common causes of stress:

  • Major life events: death of a loved one, divorce, moving house, losing your job or being expelled from school, or being involved in a traumatic event such as a car accident or a natural disaster.

  • Health issues: being diagnosed with a major illness, or looking after a sick family member or loved one.

  • Financial issues: having debt, or struggling to make ends meet.

  • Difficulties at home: relationship issues, divorce, domestic abuse or violence, or tension or trouble in the home.

Types of stress

Regular, everyday stress is something that everyone experiences in life and it can usually be managed by yourself. But if you find you are experiencing stress symptoms that are erratic, ongoing or particularly severe, you could be experiencing acute stress disorder or chronic stress.

Having said that, it’s important not to self-diagnose. The best thing to do if you are concerned about your stress levels is to make an appointment to see a GP – they will be able to help you with diagnosis, treatment and management.

Acute stress disorder (ASD)

Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a diagnosable mental health condition that can occur when someone experiences a traumatic event, such as a car accident, sexual or physical assault, war, terrorism or torture, a natural disaster, serious injury, or the death of someone close. People can be diagnosed with ASD after experiencing a traumatic event themselves or after witnessing such an event.

ASD may be diagnosed in the following days or weeks after the traumatic event. It’s a similar condition to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but ASD symptoms may last anywhere from three days to a month, while PTSD symptoms are ongoing.

You can learn more about acute stress disorder here.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress develops over a long period, and can be very harmful to your physical and mental health.

Usually, the physical effects of stress – such as increased blood pressure, high alertness and a rapid heart rate – last only for a short period of time. However, if you find that you’re experiencing these symptoms constantly, it could be a sign of chronic stress.

Chronic stress can be caused by a number of things, including:

  • constant stress at home (e.g. divorce or a break-up, challenging relationships, or domestic abuse)

  • ongoing stress at school (e.g. experiencing academic difficulties or bullying)

  • having a high-pressure job

  • having financial difficulties, such as being in debt or struggling to make ends meet.

Chronic stress puts pressure on the body for an extended period, which can cause a range of symptoms and increase the risk of developing certain illnesses.

You can learn more about what happens to the body when stress is chronic here.

When to see a doctor for stress

If you’re experiencing these symptoms regularly because of constant stress, it’s a good idea to see a GP for help.

It’s particularly important to go to a GP if you are experiencing burnout, or using drugs or alcohol to cope with stress, or if you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

What happens if stress isn’t managed?

The effects of chronic stress on the body can include:

You can learn more about how stress affects the body here.

How to manage and prevent stress

It’s pretty much impossible to completely avoid stress – unfortunately, life will always have its stressful moments. The important thing is to remember that stress actually has a physiological purpose of helping us to get through challenging times, so you need to be able to distinguish between the helpful kind of stress and chronic or severe stress that impacts your health.

If you think the stress you’re experiencing might be of the unhelpful kind, it’s a good idea to try some new techniques to manage it.

Read more about how to manage stress here.

Follow the PRAISES model

The PRAISES model gives an overview of different elements of life that generally contribute to our happiness, contentment and mental wellbeing. Having a balanced mix of these things will help you to feel more relaxed, in control and able to manage stress.

If you find that you’re feeling stressed, read through the PRAISES model and see if one of these aspects might be missing for you – then have a think about ways to incorporate more of it in your life.

PRAISES stands for:

  • Physical: health/self-care

  • Recreational: fun/relaxation

  • Artistic: creative pursuits or appreciating creativity of others (e.g. listening to music)

  • Intellectual: direct or indirect learning

  • Spiritual: connection beyond the individual/family (e.g. community, religion)

  • Employment: finding work or chasing career goals

  • Social: time spent with important others (e.g. family).

You can read more about the PRAISES model here.

Identify and avoid your triggers

Knowing what makes you stressed, and being aware of how you respond to different challenges in life, will help you to manage stressful periods. Recognising your stressors or triggers can help you to better understand and face what’s going on.

Some common triggers are:

  • alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or drugs

  • a stressful work, home or school environment

  • driving or travelling

  • withdrawal or side-effects from certain medications

  • phobias

  • health issues or concerns

  • erratic eating patterns – if you skip a meal, your blood sugar may drop, which can lead to feeling jittery and anxious.

Exercise and nutrition

If you’re experiencing severe or constant stress, exercise and nutrition can often make a huge difference.

Making sure you are getting regular exercise, making healthy food choices, and drinking enough water will help you to manage and lower your stress.

Breathing techniques to relax and relieve stress

Some people use breathing exercises to help them calm down when they experience spikes of stress or anxiety, while others prefer to practise stress-lowering practices like mindfulness or meditation for a few minutes every day.

Try one of these exercises:

  • The 4–7–8 technique: Breathe in for four seconds. Hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale for eight seconds. Repeat this a few times.

  • Box breathing: Breathe in through your nose, counting to four slowly. Hold your breath for four seconds, then slowly exhale through your mouth for four seconds – then repeat. Make sure to focus on how your breath feels as you inhale and exhale, and on how your lungs feel as they expand and contract.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Take a deep breath in as you tense a muscle group, then slowly breathe out as you release it. Focus on the physical feeling of stress leaving your muscles as you relax them one by one. Work your way up your body: first, tense and relax your feet, then your calves, then thighs, stomach, chest, fingers, arms, shoulders, neck and jaw.

You can read more about different breathing techniques here.

Prioritise pacing yourself and taking breaks

Schedule regular breaks into your day, pace yourself with daily tasks, and prioritise rest. Making these changes can have an enormous impact on lowering overall stress levels and helping you to prioritise your mental wellbeing.

Here are some more ideas for relaxation to help you when you’re feeling stressed.

Acknowledge what is and isn’t in your control

Acknowledging what you can and can’t control, and finding ways to let go of situations you cannot change, can help with the symptoms of stress.

Do your best to solve the problems that are within your control and to accept the things you can’t change

Talk to someone about how you’re feeling

Opening up to a loved one or to someone you trust (like a teacher or school counsellor) can make a world of difference when you’re going through a stressful time. Talking does help – but if you’re finding it tricky, you can find a guide to talking to someone you trust here.

Some people find it can be easier and more helpful to speak to a GP or a psychologist. Read more about finding professional support here.

Support and resources for stress

If you are experiencing stress and need support, you can find more helpful articles here or book a one-on-one chat with a peer work via ReachOut's Peer Chat. You can also read about other people’s experiences with stress, share your own story, and find support in the ReachOut Online Community.

If you need urgent support:

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