Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due August 2022

Stress is how you feel and respond when life puts you under a lot of pressure. This may be more pressure than you feel like you can cope with. A certain amount of stress can be positive as it can help you prepare for actions and challenges and respond to them. But too much stress, especially over a long period of time, can cause both mental and physical problems.

What is stress?

Your body’s automatic 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 this ‘fight or flight’ response. They increase your heart rate and blood pressure and you breathe faster so that more oxygen and glucose can get to your muscles. All of these reactions prepare you to take action to deal with a possible threat.

Modern day stress, such as money worries or deadlines at work, 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. But over a long time, stress can actually have a negative effect on how you cope with situations, and it might damage your health.

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This page is designed to provide general health information. If you need help now, please use the following services.

If you think you might harm yourself or are worried someone else might come to immediate harm, call the emergency services on 999 or go to your local accident and emergency department.

Symptoms of stress

Everyone reacts to stress differently — it can depend on your personality and how you respond to pressure. But there are some common stress symptoms and signs to look out for.

Mental effects of stress can include:

  • constantly worrying
  • finding it hard to concentrate and remember things
  • feeling disappointed with yourself
  • lacking confidence

Emotional signs or effects of stress can include:

  • mood swings
  • feeling irritable or having a short temper
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • feeling depressed or anxious
  • feeling more emotional — you might be more tearful or sensitive
  • not enjoying things you used to in life

You might also start behaving differently and you may:

  • feel like you can’t make decisions
  • eat more, or less, than usual
  • drink alcohol, smoke or take illegal drugs to relax
  • become more aggressive

Stress can affect you physically too and cause problems such as:

  • feeling tired and that you have no energy
  • trouble sleeping
  • stomach ache
  • aches and pains
  • headaches
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • feeling sick
  • chest pains, or tightness in your chest
  • headaches
  • losing your desire to have sex

These effects may be caused by problems other than stress. But if you have any of them, talk to friends and family about it. If you’ve been having problems for a while (longer than a couple of weeks), or they’re affecting your daily life – contact your GP.

Stress can also make some other health conditions worse, including skin conditions. For more information, see FAQ: Stress and health.

Identifying stress

If you feel like you’re stressed or if you feel very anxious and it’s been affecting your life for a while, you can contact your GP. As another option, if you live in England, you may be able to refer yourself to local psychological therapies services. They’ll usually be able to recognise the effects and give you advice about how to deal with it.

It’s common for people to feel reluctant to ask for help if they’re stressed or feel under pressure. But don’t be afraid to speak to your friends or family, or your GP. It’s important to recognise the effects 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 effects you had, and how you coped.

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Treatment options for stress

There are lots of ways you can deal with stress and what works for you may be different to what works for someone else. There aren’t any medicines to treat stress. Things like changing the way you approach your life, counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help you cope better.

Helping yourself

Exercise is good for stress relief and can improve your mood. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins (the hormones that make you feel good). Try to take a walk or get some fresh air during the day. Both exercise and spending time outdoors are good for both your mental and physical health. For tips on getting more active, see Related information.

There are other things you can try to help deal with stress better.

  • Manage your time better and prioritise more important things first.
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle — eat a healthy balanced diet, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep.
  • Know your limits — don’t take on too much.
  • Find out what makes you feel stressed and try to change your thoughts and behaviour to reduce it. It might help to talk things over with friends or family.
  • Accept the things you can’t change and concentrate on the things you have control over.
  • Make time for the activities you enjoy and for the things that make you feel relaxed. You’re more likely to neglect this area of your life if you’re stressed.
  • Find time to meet friends.
  • Develop a positive thinking style — try to look at a problem differently or discuss it with someone.
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol, or caffeine, or smoke or take illegal drugs as a way to cope. In the long term, these things will only make you feel worse.

You can also learn techniques to manage your stress from self-help books, podcasts and online. Or, by attending a stress management course. For more tips, see FAQ: How to relax.

Some people find that meditative approaches can help to reduce stress and anxiety. These include things like:

  • mindfulness
  • meditation — this can help you learn to reduce anxious thoughts and become calmer
  • yoga or tai chi — these help you control your breathing and relax your mind
  • relaxation techniques

Explore the options available and find a solution that fits you, your lifestyle, work and personality. There’s no right or wrong approach as everyone reacts to stress in different ways. And different approaches will work for different people.

Talking therapies

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking treatment that can help treat stress. It looks at how situations can lead to thoughts that affect your feelings and behaviour. It aims to change the way you think and behave, and helps you to challenge negative thoughts or feelings. You may find it useful to learn more about CBT.

Complementary therapies

Some people find that complementary therapies, such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, hypnosis, reflexology and herbal remedies, give stress relief. But there isn’t enough evidence to say if they work or not.

Causes of stress

Sometimes there’s no obvious cause for stress – all sorts of situations can cause it and stress can also be caused by a build-up of small things over time. Some of the common triggers for stress are:

  • unachievable work demands — see work-related stress for more information
  • commuting to work
  • money matters
  • relationships with family, such as if your child’s behaviour has been hard to deal with
  • separating from a partner, or divorce
  • losing your job
  • moving house
  • having a baby
  • illness
  • if a loved one dies

Frequently asked questions

  • Yes, a common effect of stress is poor sleep (insomnia), which can make you feel even worse. Around a third of people in the UK have trouble sleeping. If you’re stressed or anxious about things, you might find it hard to fall asleep. You may also wake up during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, or have nightmares. There are some simple steps you can take to try and help you sleep better. For simple tips on how, see Related information.

  • There are some links between stress and certain illnesses. If you have a pre-existing health condition, stress can make it worse, or flare up. Examples of conditions that can be aggravated by stress include migraine, eczema, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and psoriasis.

    If you have rheumatoid arthritis, stress may cause a flare-up of your symptoms. Being stressed or anxious may also mean you’re more likely to get constipation or trigger an asthma attack.

    Stress may not directly cause coronary heart disease, such as a heart attack or stroke. But if you smoke, drink, or eat more to cope with stress, you increase your risk of these. Stressful situations can raise your blood pressure temporarily too. If you’re stressed over a long time, you could possibly develop long-term high blood pressure. If you exercise regularly, it can help to reduce your stress levels and blood pressure.

  • If you feel stressed or under pressure, there are some techniques you can learn to help you relax and wind down.

    Simple deep breathing exercises can improve your sense of wellbeing and lower your stress levels. There are relaxation techniques you can learn to combat everyday stress.

  • PTSD is a particularly severe form of stress that can affect anyone and happens after a major traumatic event.

    If you have PTSD, you may get any of the common effects of stress (see Symptoms of stress above). It’s also characterised by:

    • re-experiencing aspects of the event — these may occur as flashbacks in the daytime when you’re awake or as nightmares when you’re asleep
    • staying away from people or places that remind you of the event
    • emotional numbing – this means that you find it difficult to express and experience feelings
    • being ‘on guard’ all the time and looking around for danger

    Just some of the treatments that might help include:

    You may find it useful to learn more about PTSD and these treatments.

  • Any exercise that makes you breathe harder and gets your heart beating faster can be helpful. It doesn’t matter what type, as long as you enjoy it and can do it often.

    Exercise helps to reduce stress hormones (chemicals produced by your body) and stimulates the release of endorphins in your body. These are the hormones that make you feel good. Exercise can also help raise your self-esteem and reduce anxiety or depression. Exercising might also help you sleep better.

    It’s worthwhile to find a way to build exercise into your daily life. See Related information for tips on how.

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Related information

    • Big White Wall
      This online, anonymous community provides a secure environment for you to seek help if you’re feeling stressed, anxious or down about anything. You can share stories to get and give advice, find information and do courses to understand better how you’re feeling and make positive change. And trained professionals keep an eye on things 24 hours a day to make sure everyone stays safe and supported.
    • Be Mindful
      This website-based mindfulness programme is made up of 10 30-minute modules for you to do at your own pace. It teaches mindfulness techniques to help you manage stress or simply to try to live a happier, healthier life. The programme uses audio clips, text-based information and a library of resources and exercises, and you can track your progress as you go along.
    • Mind
      The charity Mind has information to support people with a mental health condition and those who care for them. If you’re stressed, they have a range of in-depth content, including these relaxation techniques. They also have suggestions of ways to manage or relieve stress. You may find these short, sharp tips helpful for coping with stress. Mind's booklet ‘How to manage stress’ pulls together all their content covering what stress is and its causes, and things you can do to cope.
    • Rethink Mental Illness
      This charity has support groups, runs campaigns and can direct you to local mental health services, as well as providing information. One of their resources – the ‘Good health guide’ – sets out practical steps that people with mental illness can take to look after their physical health.
    • Mental Health Foundation
      The Mental Health Foundation is a charity that carries out research and offers information about many areas of mental health. Their comprehensive page about stress gives details about the different causes and symptoms. It also gives advice about how you can tackle it but also where to go if you want professional help.

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  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, August 2019
    Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due August 2022