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Stress is how you feel when the pressure you’re under exceeds your ability to cope. Everyone reacts to stress differently. It can depend on your personality and how you respond to pressure.
Some stress can be positive. A certain level of pressure can help you prepare for actions and challenges. However, too much stress, especially over a long period of time, can cause physical and emotional problems.
Many of your body’s control mechanisms happen without you having to think about them. Your automatic stress response to unexpected events is known as your ‘fight or flight’ response.
When you have a shock or perceive something as a threat, your body releases hormones. These are chemicals produced by your body, such as adrenalin, that contribute to your ‘fight or flight’ response. These hormones increase your heart rate and blood pressure so that more oxygen and glucose can get to your muscles. You will also breathe faster and sweat more to cool these muscles down. All of these reactions prepare you to take action to deal with a possible threat.
Modern day stresses, such as money worries or deadlines at work, don’t cause an effective ‘fight or flight’ response like we once required for survival. But they do cause your body to release stress hormones. In the short term, stress ‘revs up’ your body and heightens your ability to carry out tasks and meet deadlines. However, long-term stress can have a negative effect on how you cope with situations and may damage your health.
Everyone reacts to stress in different ways. However, there are some common symptoms to look out for. Your symptoms can be psychological, emotional, behavioural or physical, or a mix of these.
Psychological symptoms of stress can include:
If you’re affected emotionally by stress, your symptoms may include:
Your behaviour might also change and you may be:
Stress can affect you physically, causing symptoms such as:
These symptoms may be caused by problems other than stress. If you have any of them, speak to your GP for advice.
If you have a pre-existing health condition, stress may cause it to worsen or flare-up. For example, conditions such as migraine, eczema, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome or psoriasis can all be aggravated by stress.
Sometimes there is no obvious cause for stress. However, all sorts of situations can cause it. Some of the common triggers for stress are:
Stress can also be caused by a build-up of small things over time. For example, you may not feel valued at work or you may have a child whose behaviour has been consistently hard to deal with.
It may be helpful to try to recognise the difference between temporary stress and long-term stress. Temporary stress goes away once a specific problem is resolved. Long-term stress doesn’t and can be damaging to you, your health and those around you.
There is no specific test to diagnose stress. If you think you’re stressed or if you feel very anxious, talk to those around you who are likely to be supportive, or your GP. Your GP will usually be able to recognise the symptoms and give you advice about how to deal with it. Your GP may also suggest that you talk to a counsellor.
You might feel reluctant to ask for help if you’re stressed or feel under pressure. But don’t be afraid to speak to your GP, friends or family. It’s important to recognise the symptoms of stress so you can learn how to manage them and begin to feel better.
One way of helping to identify your stress triggers, how you react to them and how they make you feel, is to keep a diary. You could make a note of what made you stressed, how stressed you became, what symptoms you experienced and how well you coped.
There are a number of treatment options for stress. These are described below. Which treatments you are offered will depend on your personal circumstances. Your GP will discuss these with you to help you make a decision that’s right for you. Your decision will be based on your GP’s expert opinion and your own personal values and preferences.
To be able to tackle stress, it’s important to recognise the symptoms as well as the problems that it’s causing. There are a number of ways to reduce the effect that stress can have on you. If these don’t work, your GP may recommend other options, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Exercise can be effective at relieving stress and is good for your wellbeing. It can improve your mood, give you a sense of achievement and help you release tension. According to the Department of Health, there’s evidence that physical activity reduces your risk of depression and improves your quality of sleep. It helps reduce stress hormones and stimulates the release of endorphins (the hormones that make you feel good).
It can help to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. A brisk walk to the shops, cycling to work or gardening can help. The recommended healthy level of physical activity is 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate exercise per week. One way to achieve this is to do 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week.
There are a number of other things you can try to help deal with and manage your stress better.
You can also learn techniques to manage your stress from self-help books, podcasts and CDs. Or by attending a stress management course. Some people find that meditative approaches, such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga or tai chi, are effective at reducing stress and anxiety. Yoga and tai chi help you control your breathing and relax your mind. Meditation helps you learn to reduce anxious thoughts and become calmer.
Explore the options available and find a solution that fits you, your lifestyle, work and personality. There is no right or wrong approach as everyone reacts to stress in different ways. And different approaches will work for different people.
CBT is a talking treatment. It looks at how situations can lead to thoughts that impact your feelings and behaviour. It aims to change the way you think and behave, and helps you to challenge negative thoughts or feelings.
CBT can help to treat many problems, such as sleeping difficulties, relationship problems, drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety or depression. The therapy focuses on your thoughts, images, beliefs, feelings and attitudes (known as your cognitive processes) and how these relate to the way you behave. CBT sessions may be on a one-to-one basis or with a group of people. Sessions may last for between five and 20 weeks, with each session typically lasting between 30 and 60 minutes.
Medicines are not generally helpful for treating stress.
Some people find that complementary therapies, including acupuncture, visualisation, reflexology and herbal remedies, offer some benefit. However, there isn’t enough evidence to say if they are effective or not.
Massage and aromatherapy can promote a sense of wellbeing and provide a relaxing environment that helps you unwind. There's little scientific evidence to show whether or not aromatherapy is an effective treatment for stress.
You may find herbal remedies helpful, but it’s important to remember that natural doesn’t mean harmless. Herbal remedies contain active ingredients and may interact with other medicines or cause side-effects. Don’t start taking any herbal remedies without speaking to your pharmacist first.
Reviewed by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, June 2014.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.