Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure.
*Last updated: 17 September 2021
What is stress?
Stress is our body’s response to pressure. Many different situations or life events can cause stress. It is often triggered when we experience something new, unexpected or that threatens our sense of self, or when we feel we have little control over a situation.
We all deal with stress differently. Our ability to cope can depend on our genetics, early life events, personality and social and economic circumstances.
When we encounter stress, our body produces stress hormones that trigger a fight or flight response and activate our immune system. This helps us respond quickly to dangerous situations.
Sometimes, this stress response can be useful: it can help us push through fear or pain so we can run a marathon or deliver a speech, for example. Our stress hormones will usually go back to normal quickly once the stressful event is over, and there won’t be any lasting effects.
However, too much stress can cause negative effects. It can leave us in a permanent stage of fight or flight, leaving us overwhelmed or unable to cope. Long term, this can affect our physical and mental health.
What makes us stressed?
Many things that can lead to stress: bereavement, divorce or separation, losing a job or unexpected money problems. Work-related stress can also have a negative impact on your mental health. People affected by work-related stress lose an average of 24 days of work due to ill health.
Even positive life changes, such as moving to a bigger house, gaining a job promotion or going on holiday can be sources of stress. If you feel stressed in these situations you may struggle to understand why or be unwilling to share your feelings with others.
What are the signs of stress?
How you might feel
You may feel:
- angry or aggressive
These feelings can sometimes produce physical symptoms, making you feel even worse.
How your body might react
If you’re stressed, you may experience:
- digestive problems such as constipation, bloating or diarrhea
- shallow breathing or hyperventilating
- heart palpitations
- aches and pains.
How you might behave
You may behave differently if you’re stressed. You may:
- withdraw from other people or snap at them
- be indecisive or inflexible
- be tearful
- have problems getting to sleep or staying asleep
- experience sexual problems
- smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs more than usual.
If the stress is long-lasting, you may notice your sleep and memory are affected, your eating habits change, or you feel less inclined to exercise.
Some research has also linked long-term stress to gastrointestinal conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or stomach ulcers, as well as conditions like cardiovascular disease.
Who is affected by stress?
All of us can probably recognise some of the feelings described above. Some people seem to be more affected by stress than others. For some people, getting out of the door on time each morning can be a very stressful experience, whereas others may be less affected with a great deal of pressure.
Some people are more likely to experience stressful situations than others. For example:
- people with a lot of debt or financial insecurity are more likely to be stressed about money
- people from minority ethnic groups or who are LGBTIQ+ are more likely to be stressed about prejudice or discrimination
- people with disabilities or long-term health conditions are more likely to be stressed about their health or about stigma associated with their condition.
How can you help yourself?
If you're feeling stressed, there are some things you can try to feel less tense and overwhelmed.
1. Recognise when stress is a problem
It’s important to connect the physical and emotional signs you’re experiencing to the pressures you are faced with. Don’t ignore physical warning signs such as tense muscles, tiredness, headaches or migraines.
Think about what’s causing your stress. Sort them into issues with a practical solution, things that will get better with time and things you can't do anything about. Take control by taking small steps towards the things you can improve.
Make a plan to address the things that you can. This might involve setting yourself realistic expectations and prioritising essential commitments. If you feel overwhelmed, ask for help and say no to things you can’t take on.
2. Think about where you can make changes
Are you taking on too much? Could you hand over some things to someone else? Can you do things in a more leisurely way? You may need to prioritise things and reorganise your life so you’re not trying to do everything at once.
3. Build supportive relationships
Find close friends or family who can offer help and practical advice can support you in managing stress. Joining a club or a course can help to expand your social network and encourage you to do something different. Activities like volunteering can change your perspective and have a beneficial impact on your mood.
4. Eat healthily
A healthy diet can improve your mood. Getting enough nutrients (including essential vitamins and minerals) and water can help your mental wellbeing.
5. Be aware of your smoking and drinking
Cut down or cut out smoking and drinking if you can. They may seem to reduce tension but actually make problems worse. Alcohol and caffeine can increase feelings of anxiety.
6. Get some exercise
Physical exercise can help manage the effects of stress by producing endorphins that boost your mood. It can be hard to motivate yourself if you're stressed, but even a little bit of activity can make a difference. For example, you could aim to walk for 15-20 minutes three times a week.
7. Take time out
Take time to relax and practice self-care, where you do positive things for yourself. For instance, you could listen to our podcasts about relaxation to calm your body and mind. Striking a balance between responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself is vital in reducing stress levels.
8. Be mindful
Mindfulness meditation can be practiced anywhere at any time. Research has suggested it can be helpful for managing and reducing the effect of stress and anxiety.
9. Get some restful sleep
If you’re having difficulty sleeping, you can try to reduce the amount of caffeine you consume and avoid too much screen time before bed. Write down a to do list for the next day to help you prioritise, but make sure you put it aside before bed. For more tips on getting a good night’s sleep, read our guide ‘How to sleep better’.
10. Be kind to yourself
Try to keep things in perspective and don't be too hard on yourself. Look for things in your life that are positive and write down things that make you feel grateful.
Get professional help
If you continue to feel overwhelmed by stress, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s important to get help as soon as possible so you can start to feel better.
Talk to your doctor about how you’re feeling. They should be able to advise you on treatment and may refer you for further help. They may suggest talking therapies such as:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which can help reduce stress by changing the ways you think about stressful situations
- brief interpersonal counselling, which can give you the chance to talk about what causes you stress and develop coping strategies
- mindfulness-based approaches.
If your stress is work-related, our page on work-life balance may help. If you feel comfortable, talk to your manager or HR team about how you're feeling to see if they can make changes to your workload or hours. If your workplace has an Employee Assistance Scheme, you could contact them for confidential support or counselling.