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Stress

Expert reviewer, Dr Melanie Hill, Bupa Clinics GP
Next review due December 2024

Stress is how you feel when you’re under emotional or mental pressure. A certain amount of stress can be positive because it can help you respond to situations. But too much stress, especially over a long period of time, can cause both mental and physical problems.

What is stress?

Stress is how your body responds to pressure. You might feel stressed in new or unexpected situations or when you feel like you don’t have any control. Your body deals with this kind of event by releasing hormones (chemicals) such as adrenaline. These hormones increase your heart rate and blood pressure and make you breathe faster. This gets your body ready to deal quickly with a possible threat. It’s called your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response.

In the short term, stress may actually give you a boost and increase your ability to carry out tasks and meet deadlines. But too much stress can mean you’re constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode, and this can have a negative effect on your health.

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Causes of stress

You may feel stressed as a result of many different external pressures. But how resilient you are at coping with these situations can affect how stressed you feel. How much support you have can also make a difference. Some common triggers for stress include:

  • work-related stress
  • money problems
  • difficult relationships with family or friends
  • going through a separation or divorce
  • losing your job or being unemployed
  • big life changes like moving house, getting married or having a baby
  • illness or injury
  • bereavement
  • caring for a loved one

Even something that would usually be thought of as a happy event – for example, getting married or having a baby – can be stressful. Sometimes there’s no obvious single cause for stress, it may be a build-up of lots of small things over time.

Symptoms of stress

Everyone deals with stress differently — it can depend on your personality and how you respond to pressure. Stress can affect how you feel both emotionally and physically, as well as how you behave. Here are some common stress symptoms and signs to look out for.

Mental effects and emotional signs of stress can include feeling:

  • constantly worried
  • irritable and short-tempered
  • overwhelmed
  • depressed or anxious
  • like you can’t switch off
  • unable to enjoy yourself

If you’re stressed, you may behave differently. You may:

  • become withdrawn and avoid certain situations
  • feel like you can’t make decisions
  • feel restless and unable to concentrate
  • eat more – or less – than usual
  • drink alcohol or smoke more than you usually would
  • become aggressive or tearful
  • bite your nails or pick at your skin

Physical symptoms of stress can include:

  • feeling tired and like you have no energy
  • having trouble sleeping
  • muscle aches and pains
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal problems – including indigestion, diarrhoea or constipation
  • chest pains or tightness
  • grinding teeth or clenching your jaw
  • having sexual problems or not enjoying sex anymore
  • if you have periods, they may become disrupted

Stress can also make some other health conditions worse. These include irritable bowel syndrome, migraine, asthma and skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.

Self-help for stress

There are many things you can do to manage your stress better. These may involve both dealing with whatever’s triggering your stress and looking after your mental wellbeing. Making sure you feel well mentally can mean you’re better able to deal with stressful situations.

The first step is recognising when you feel stressed and what’s triggering it. Dealing with triggers may involve the following.

  • Thinking about how you can organise your time better and, if you need to, prioritising certain tasks or commitments.
  • Knowing your limits — not taking on too much at work or in your personal life.
  • Working out what practical changes you can make. This might include getting any support you need – whether that’s in relation to housing, finance, work or your personal life.

Ways to improve your wellbeing and help you cope better include the following.

  • Get plenty of exercise. Exercise is good for stress relief and can improve your mood. It’ll help with both your physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Make sure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet. What you eat will make a difference to your energy levels and how you’re feeling.
  • Get enough sleep. You’ll feel more able to deal with stressful situations if you’re well rested.
  • Make time for the activities you enjoy and that make you feel relaxed.
  • Find time to keep connected with friends. Talking things over with a friend can help and also make you feel more positive and less isolated.
  • Try out different relaxation techniques. These include mindfulness, meditation, yoga and deep-breathing exercises to combat stress.
  • Don’t use alcohol, caffeine, smoking or illegal drugs as a way to cope. In the long term, these things will only make you feel worse.

Getting help for stress

It’s common for people to feel reluctant to ask for help when they’re stressed or feel under pressure. But the sooner you do, the sooner you can begin to feel better.

It may help to talk things over with a friend, partner or family member. But if you’re continuing to feel stressed and it’s been affecting you for a while, it’s worth seeking professional help. It’s usually best to contact your GP first. But in some areas, you may be able to refer yourself directly to local psychological therapies services.

Your GP will talk to you about what symptoms you’ve been having and if stress could be a factor. They’ll then discuss ways that you can manage your stress, and any treatment options they can offer you.

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Treatment options for stress

There isn’t a specific treatment for stress because it’s not a medical condition. But there are lots of different things your doctor may suggest to help you cope better.

Talking therapies

These are therapies that involve talking to a trained professional about your thoughts and feelings. Your GP may refer you for talking therapy if they think it could help you to deal with your stress.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a common type of talking therapy. It aims to change the way you think and behave and may help reduce stress by changing how you respond to stressful situations.

Sometimes, rather than seeing someone face-to-face, your GP may give you access to online CBT resources that you can use in your own time.

Medicines

Although there isn’t a medication for stress itself, your doctor may prescribe medicines to help with any of the related symptoms you may be having. For instance, they may offer you antidepressants if you’re also feeling depressed. And they can give you treatments for irritable bowel syndrome and skin conditions if these are a problem.

Complementary therapies

Some people find that complementary therapies such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, hypnosis, reflexology and herbal remedies can help with stress. There’s not much solid evidence about how well these therapies work. But you might find that they help you to relax and so feel better.

Frequently asked questions

  • Stress can cause a number of physical symptoms. These can include aches and pains, headaches and diarrhoea or constipation. It may make you feel more tired and you may have trouble sleeping. Stress can also affect your sex life. For more information, see our section on symptoms.

  • There are lots of things you can do to help yourself feel better. Doing some exercise can be beneficial, and it’s important to take some time to relax. There are different relaxation techniques you can try. It will also help to look at practical changes you can make – like organising your time better. Our section on self-help has more information.

  • Stress affects people in different ways. A little bit of stress can be a good thing because it may motivate you. But it can start to cause problems if it’s having a negative effect on your health. You may feel irritable, overwhelmed, depressed and anxious. Stress can cause physical symptoms too. You can read more about the signs of stress in our section on symptoms.



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Related information


  • Discover other helpful health information websites.

    • How to manage stress. Mind. mind.org.uk, published November 2017
    • Stress. Mental Health Foundation. mentalhealth.org.uk, last updated 17 September 2021
    • Fight-or-flight response. Encyclopaedia Britannica. www.britannica.com, accessed 9 November 2021
    • Mental health. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online June 2020
    • Seeking help for a mental health problem. When should I seek help? Mind. mind.org.uk, published December 2017
    • Complementary and alternative therapies. Mind. mind.org.uk, published April 2018
  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, December 2021
    Expert reviewer, Dr Melanie Hill, Bupa Clinics GP
    Next review due December 2024

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