Almost everyone experiences stress from time to time and while a small amount of stress can motivate us, too much or prolonged stress can be damaging to both our physical and mental health.
Stress typically begins as pressure – from ourselves or others – and if we are unable to cope with this pressure, we feel stressed. The effects of stress will differ from person to person, but if left untreated it can lead to illness.
There are many things in life that can cause stress, including work, relationships, family issues and financial problems. For some, stress causes them to adopt unhealthy coping methods such as smoking or drinking - and while this may feel like a quick fix, these habits are harming your health and ultimately the stress itself still isn't being addressed. On this page we will look at stress in more detail, including stress symptoms and what you can do to manage stress.
On this page
- What is stress?
- Causes of stress
- Stress symptoms
- When should I seek help for stress?
- Treatment for stress
What is stress?
Stress is an innate reaction embedded from our caveman days. Back then humans had to deal with threatening situations, which caused our brains to release a range of ‘stress chemicals’ such as cortisol and adrenaline to provoke what is known as the fight-or-flight reaction. The fight reaction would give us a burst of energy, ready to fight for our lives, while the flight reaction would encourage us to flee from danger and protect ourselves.
These days we rarely encounter such threatening situations, however our brains continue to react in this way when we are under pressure. When this happens, and there is no option to fight or flight - the stress chemicals can build up and affect our immune system and blood pressure. Over time this build-up of stress can affect our mental health too, leading to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
Causes of stress
Causes of stress will depend on the individual - so what may cause stress for one person may not be stressful for another. Having said this, most stressful situations are associated with change or a lack of control. Even if the change is a positive one, it can still feel stressful.
Some common stressful events include:
- getting married
- moving house
- having a baby
- serious illness
As well as events like these, stress can also be caused by long-term circumstances, such as:
- being unemployed
- having financial issues
- relationship difficulties
- caring for a disabled family member/friend
- problems at work.
In some cases, the absence of change or activities in life is the source of stress.
As previously mentioned, stress is experienced individually and some personalities find themselves more susceptible to stress than others. Having said this, there are certain symptoms that are commonly associated with stress. These can affect us both emotionally and physically.
Emotional stress symptoms
- feeling agitated, frustrated or quick to anger
- feeling overwhelmed and teary
- feeling anxious
- having a low sense of self-esteem
- avoiding other people and social situations.
Physical stress symptoms
- using alcohol/drugs/food to seek comfort
- difficulty sleeping
- digestive problems and upset stomach
- feeling dizzy
- sweating excessively
- experiencing chest pains or palpitations.
The physical side effects of stress happen because of the hormones released by your brain during the fight or flight response - these include adrenaline and cortisol.
When adrenaline is released it causes rapid changes to your body, increasing blood flow and speeding up your breathing rate and heartbeat. You may become pale, sweat more and your mouth may feel dry. This hormone is designed to help us either fight or flight in reaction to the stressful situation. When the threat is physical, this works well and once the danger has passed, your body recovers. When the threat is emotional however, the effects of adrenaline subside much more slowly - meaning you could feel tense and anxious for longer. If the situation is ongoing, you could feel the effects of adrenaline long-term and this is when your body and mental health begin to suffer.
Cortisol is present in your body all the time, but levels increase when you are faced with danger, or a stressful situation. In the short-term, much like a rush of adrenaline, the effects on your body are positive and help you deal with an immediate crisis. Long-term stress however can cause a constantly raised level of cortisol, which can have a number of harmful effects, including:
- blood sugar imbalances
- suppressed thyroid activity
- high blood pressure
- lowered immunity
- increased abdominal fat storage.
People's tolerance of stress differs, meaning for some the effects will be severe but for others they will be manageable.
When should I seek help for stress?
The issue with stress is that it exists as a problem that feeds on itself, and over time lowers your ability to cope. Because of this - the sooner you seek help for stress, the better. As stress is often viewed as simply a 'part of life' it can be difficult to know when outside support is needed. As a rule, you should look to seek help if the following is happening:
- stress (and the effects of stress) dominate your life
- stress is affecting your physical health
- you are using unhealthy coping methods to deal with stress
- you are experiencing angry outbursts that are affecting those around you.
Treatment for stress
Acknowledging the negative effect stress is having on your life, and understanding that this is not OK is an important first step. Once you have admitted to yourself that you need support, you can look into the various treatments available. Your first port of call may be your GP who will be able to assess your stress levels and suggest appropriate treatments. Below we list some suggested treatments for stress:
One recommendation commonly offered by doctors is counselling and psychotherapy. Talking with a professional about the difficulties you're experiencing can help you understand any underlying issues that may be causing your stress - for example, low self-esteem. Working with your counsellor you will then be able to identify your personal stress triggers and discuss ways of coping with them.
One form of therapy that has been recommended for those struggling with stress is mindfulness. This approach comes from a Buddhist meditation technique and focuses on paying attention to the present moment rather than worrying about past or future events. Whilst focusing on the present moment you are encouraged to notice how your body is feeling and what thoughts come and go, without judgement.
From the theories of mindfulness more specific therapies have been devised - mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). MBSR aims to help lower stress levels through meditation techniques and moment-to-moment awareness. MBCT uses similar techniques, however it also looks to identify negative thought processes that can contribute to conditions such as anxiety and depression (the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence recommend MBCT for those with recurrent depression).
Stress is an increasingly common concern and there are a number of support groups available. Being able to talk through your difficulties with other people who are going through something similar can help you feel more connected. You may also find that you are able to swap tips and ideas about stress management - in many cases, the release of talking about your concerns can be enough to reduce stress.
Everyday stress management
As well as the above treatments for stress, there are things you can do yourself at home to help manage your stress. Mental health experts agree that the following tips can help with everyday stress management:
Know your stress triggers
If you're not sure what it is that's causing your stress, it might be a good idea to keep a diary and note down any stressful episodes over the course of a couple of weeks. Aim to include as much information about your experience as possible, including the time and place, what you were doing, what you were thinking about, how you felt physically and a rating out of 10 of how stressed you felt.
Using this diary you should be able to figure out what your stress triggers are, how you cope with pressure and how you could potentially change your reactions.
Look after yourself
This means getting enough exercise, eating well and taking time to relax. Health professionals agree that exercise is a useful tool when tackling stress as it releases 'feel-good' endorphins, helping you to physically and mentally de-stress. Eating well is another important factor. Eating an unhealthy diet puts your body under physical stress, which can exacerbate any emotional stress you may be feeling.
Taking time to relax is another key part of self-care and is essential if you want to reduce stress. Aim to dedicate a certain amount of time every day to relaxation, whether that be meditating, practising yoga, reading, or simply being quiet with your own thoughts.
One of the main reasons people feel stressed is because they feel as if they don't have control of a situation. While of course it is impossible to always be in control, you can choose to control your approach to a situation. If you remain passive in your thinking (i.e. "I can't do anything about my problem") then chances are your stress levels will continue to build. If however you choose to accept your problem and look to find a solution to it (which may involve you reaching out for help), you will begin to feel more in control.
Connect with others
When we are stressed it can be easy for us to hide ourselves away from the outside world and avoid social contact. This can lead to us feeling isolated and even more stressed. Talking through your problems with friends, family and even co-workers can help you feel more connected and may even help you view your concerns in a different light. Sometimes talking to someone else about their worries puts ours in perspective. Some people find it therapeutic to get out of their own head for a while, so why not consider volunteering?
Avoid unhealthy habits
When we are stressed it is easy to rely on unhealthy habits to make us feel (temporarily) better. Such habits may include smoking, drinking, taking drugs or even overeating. In the long-term, these habits will only create new problems and as they don't tackle the cause of your stress, you will continue to feel the effects.
Accept what you cannot change
If a difficult situation arises and there is nothing you can do to change it, take a step back and accept this. Recognise that there are some things in life you cannot control. Instead try to focus on what you can control. For example, if you are being made redundant there is probably little you can do to turn the situation around. What you can do however is control your reaction and what you do next - you may choose to see it as an opportunity and begin a new job search.
Learning how to relax properly is an essential part of stress management. There are many different relaxation techniques that you can try, many of which focus on relaxing your body and breathing in a certain way.
In preparation, look to set aside a specific time each day to relax and stick to this schedule. If you can, choose a quiet place away from distractions - if you have young children, why not have them join in? This can be especially useful before their bedtime.
An example relaxation exercise:
- Have a good stretch and sit/lie in a comfortable position.
- Working from your toes up to your head identify any areas of tension and consciously relax your muscles.
- Breathe deeply and picture a peaceful scene.
- If you find yourself getting distracted, count your breaths.
Like most things, relaxation takes practice - so don't lose heart if you find it difficult at first. Keep practising and explore other ways to relax, such as aromatherapy or meditation.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Currently there are no official rules or regulations stipulating what level of training a counsellor dealing with stress needs. There are however several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors to improve their knowledge of a particular area, so for peace of mind you may wish to check to see if they have had further training in issues regarding stress.
The NHS recommends self-help stress management support groups and/or counselling to help cope with stress. You can find more information about managing stress on the NHS Choices website.
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