Stress

In small doses, stress can help you rise to the challenge. But too much of it can damage your body and your mind.

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Find out more about stress

In this guide to stress, we give you a short and easy-to-read introduction to stress, its symptoms and causes. Learn about it so you can better deal with stressful situations.

  • What is stress?

    There’s no universally agreed medical definition of stress. At its most simple, stress is your body's physical response to mental or emotional pressure. Our jobs, relationships, family life or money can all add to our levels of stress.
     
    When you’re stressed, your body believes it’s under attack and switches to what's known as ‘fight or flight’ mode. As a result, a mix of hormones and chemicals are released into your body so that you prepare for physical action. Blood might also be diverted to muscles, causing you to lose concentration or become less able to digest food.

    When the threat passes, your body usually returns to normal, but if you’re continually under pressure this might not be the case.

    To understand how stress is affecting you we can look at two things: what’s causing your stress, and how you react to it.
  • Recognising the symptoms of stress

    Stress can affect how you feel, think, behave and how your body works, but we all experience it differently. Sometimes you might feel like you can't see beyond the thick fog of stress, but other times you might not even recognise you’re stressed.

    Early signs of stress can include sweating, headaches, and losing your appetite or your ability to concentrate. Spotting these signs early, and taking appropriate action, will help prevent your stress from getting worse.

    Be aware of things like: 

    • Drinking or smoking too much 
    • overeating
    • sleeping poorly 
    • a racing heart 
    • shaking, chills or hot flushes 
    • a tingling sensation in your arms or legs 
    • butterflies in your stomach.

    You may also experience:

    • headaches
    • muscle tension or pain
    • dizziness
    • high blood pressure
    • indigestion or heartburn
    • constipation or diarrhoea
    • shallow breathing or hyperventilating
    • problems having or enjoying sex.
  • Causes and reactions to stress

    What’s causing your stress?
    Stressors are those things in your environment that cause you to become stressed. For example, these could be pressure at work, problems with your health or worries about money. Some stressors are limited to a particular time, such as a bereavement or a relationship breakdown. Others, like work pressure, can continue over time.
     
    How you might react to stress
    Everyone reacts differently to sources of potential stress. You might be able to cope well with difficult situations. Or you might find that minor issues greatly affect you.

    You might be able to cope well with one type of problem, like feeling insecure in your job, but be badly affected by another, like having trouble making ends meet. And if you’re facing more than one issue that’s causing you stress, you’re more likely to be affected.
  • Why you should take action on stress

    Reducing stress in your everyday life is vital for maintaining your health. Lowering your stress can improve your mood, boost your immune system, and allow you to be more productive. 
     
    Stress and your body
    Stress isn’t an illness itself, but when it gets the better of you, it increases your risk of developing other illnesses, from a head cold to heart disease or diabetes.
     
    Stress and your mind
    In certain situations, stress can cause other mental health conditions, or make them worse. For example, if you aren't managing your stress, you're more likely to experience anxiety or depression. 
     
    Mental health conditions can themselves cause stress. Coping with the day-to-day symptoms of any mental health issue, as well as managing appointments or treatments, can introduce additional sources of stress.
     
    Stress and your sleep
    When you're affected by stress you might find it hard to get to or stay asleep, or you may find your sleep is poor. And if you’re missing out on sleep, this can contribute to your stress, creating a never-ending cycle.

Next steps

Too much stress can have a negative impact on your life. Use our action plan to discover ways you can reduce your stress.