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Stress is how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. It usually happens when we are in a situation that we don’t feel we can manage or control.


When does stress become a problem?

Sometimes, a small amount of stress can help us to complete tasks and feel more energised. But stress can become a problem when it lasts for a long time or is very intense. In some cases, stress can affect our physical and mental health.

You might hear healthcare professionals refer to some types of stress as ‘acute’ or ‘chronic’:

  • Acute stress happens within a few minutes to a few hours of an event. It lasts for a short period of time, usually less than a few weeks, and is very intense. It can happen after an upsetting or unexpected event. For example, this could be a sudden bereavement, assault or natural disaster.
  • Chronic stress lasts for a long period of time or keeps coming back. You might experience this if you are under lots of pressure a lot of the time. You might also feel chronic stress if your day-to-day life is difficult, for example if you are a carer or if you live in poverty.


Is stress a mental health problem?

Dealing with StressStress is not normally considered a mental health problem. But it is connected to our mental health in several ways:

  • Stress can cause mental health problems. And it can make existing problems worse. For example, if you experience lots of stress, this might lead you to develop a mental health problem like anxiety or depression. Or a traumatic period of stress might lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Mental health problems can cause stress. You might find coping with the day-to-day symptoms of your mental health problem is stressful. You may also feel stressed about managing medication, healthcare appointments or other treatments.
  • You might use recreational drugs or alcohol to cope with stress. This could also affect your mental health and cause further stress.


Signs and symptoms of stress

Stress can affect our emotions, our body and how we behave, in lots of different ways. Sometimes when we are stressed, we might be able to tell right away. But at other times, we might keep going without recognising the signs.

If you are stressed, you might feel:

  • Irritable, angry, impatient or wound up
  • Over-burdened or overwhelmed
  • Anxious, nervous or afraid
  • Like your thoughts are racing and you can’t switch off
  • Unable to enjoy yourself
  • Depressed
  • Uninterested in life
  • Like you’ve lost your sense of humour
  • A sense of dread
  • Worried or tense
  • Neglected or lonely
  • Existing mental health problems getting worse

Some people who go through severe stress may experience suicidal feelings. This can be very distressing.


Physical signs of stress

The hormones that our bodies produce to respond to stressful situations can have many physical effects. These effects might include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Panic attacks
  • Blurred eyesight or sore eyes
  • Sleep problems
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches and headaches
  • Chest pains and high blood pressure
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Feeling sick, dizzy or fainting
  • Sudden weight gain or weight loss
  • Developing rashes or itchy skin
  • Sweating
  • Changes to your period or menstrual cycleExisting physical health problems getting worse

If we experience high levels of stress, these physical effects can get worse. This can also happen if we experience stress for a long period of time.

In some cases, stress may cause more severe or long-term physical health problems.


How stress can make you behave

Stress at workIf you feel stressed, it might make you:

  • Find it hard to make decisions
  • Unable to concentrate
  • Unable to remember things, or make your memory feel slower than usual
  • Constantly worry or have feelings of dread
  • Snap at people
  • Bite your nails
  • Pick at or itch your skin
  • Grind your teeth or clench your jaw
  • Experience sexual problems, such as losing interest in sex or being unable to enjoy sex
  • Eat too much or too little
  • Smoke, use recreational drugs or drink alcohol more than you usually would
  • Restless, like you can’t sit still
  • Cry or feel tearful
  • Spend or shop too much
  • Not exercise as much as you usually would, or exercise too much
  • Withdraw from people around you


What causes stress?

Many things can cause stress. You might feel stressed because of one big event or situation in your life. Or it might be a build-up of lots of smaller things.

This might make it harder for you to identify what’s making you feel stressed, or to explain it to other people.

You may experience stress if you:

  • Feel under lots of pressure
  • Face big changes in your life
  • Are worried about something
  • Don’t have much or any control over the outcome of a situation
  • Have responsibilities that you find overwhelming
  • Don’t have enough work, activities or change in your life
  • Experience discrimination, hate or abuse
  • Are going through a period of uncertainty


Why do certain things make me feel stressed?

How stressed you feel in different situations may depend on factors like:

  • How comfortable you feel in certain types of situations
  • What else you are going through at the time
  • Your past experiences, and how these affect the way you feel about yourself
  • The resources you have available to you, such as time and money
  • The amount of support you have from other people

Some situations that don’t bother you at all might cause someone else a lot of stress. This is because we are all influenced by different experiences. We also have different levels of support and ways of coping.

Certain events might also make you feel stressed sometimes, but not every time. 


What kind of situations can cause stress?

Many things can cause stress in different areas of our lives. These may include:

  • Illness or injury
  • Pregnancy and becoming a parent
  • Infertility and problems having children
  • Bereavement
  • Experiencing abuse
  • Experiencing crime and the justice system, such as being arrested, going to court or being a witness
  • Organising a complicated event, like a holiday
  • Everyday tasks, such as household chores or taking transport
Friends and family
  • Getting married or civil partnered
  • Going through a break-up or getting divorced
  • Difficult relationships with parents, siblings, friends or children
  • Losing your job
  • Long-term unemployment
  • Retiring
  • Exams and deadlines
  • Difficult situations or colleagues at work
  • Starting a new job
  • Housing problems, such as poor living conditions, lack of security or homelessness
  • Moving house
  • Problems with neighbours
  • Worries about money or benefits
  • Living in poverty
  • Managing debt
Social factors
  • Having poor access to services such as medical care, green spaces or transport
  • Living through a stressful community-wide, national or global event, like the coronavirus pandemic
  • Experiencing stigma or discrimination, including racism, homophobia, biphobia or transphobia


Can happy events cause stress?

Some of these situations are often thought of as happy events. For example, you might feel expected to be happy or excited about getting married or having a baby.

But these events can bring big changes, and you might experience new or unusual demands. So they can still feel very stressful. This can be difficult to deal with, especially if you also feel pressure to be positive.

Managing stress and building resilience

Being prepared for periods of stress can make it easier to get through them. And knowing how to manage our wellbeing can help us recover after a stressful event. Some of us may refer to our ability to manage stress as our resilience.

There are things we can try to build our resilience against stress. But there are also factors that might make it harder to be resilient, such as experiencing discrimination or lacking support.


Barriers to resilience

The terms ‘resilience’ and ‘managing stress’ can mean different things to different people. We might understand them differently because our experiences shape how we feel stress, and how easily we can respond to it.

Some people may think that our response to stress is something that we can all easily control. But this is not true. There are some causes of stress that are beyond our control. And some ways of managing stress and building resilience are not always available to us.

This makes dealing with stress very personal – it may be harder for some of us than for others. Some experiences that can make it more difficult include:

  • Having a long-term physical health condition
  • Having a mental health problem
  • Experiencing discrimination and hate, including racism, homophobia, biphobia or transphobia
  • Living far away from family or friends, or having difficult relationships with them
  • Experiencing loneliness
  • Experiencing poverty and money worries, including debt or problems with benefits
  • Living in an area with poor access to services like healthcare, public transport and green spaces
  • Being a single parent
  • Being a carer
  • Having poor quality housing
  • Lacking safety and protection, such as living in areas with poor policing


Tips for managing stress

Below are some tips you could try to help you manage stress and build your resilience. Trying these ideas won’t make all the stress in your life disappear. But they could make it easier to get through stressful situations.


Look after your wellbeing

Taking care of your wellbeing can help you feel more able to manage stress. Different things will work for different people, but these are some ideas you could try:

  • Be kind to yourself – Learning to be kinder to yourself can help with how you feel in different situations. Try to take breaks in your day for things you enjoy. And reward yourself for your achievements, even if they seem small.
  • Try to find time to relax – This might feel hard if you can’t do anything to stop a situation that is making you stressed. But if you can allow yourself a short break, this can help with how you feel. See our pages on relaxation for some tips and exercises.
  • Develop your interests and hobbies – Spending time on things you enjoy could help distract you from a stressful situation. If stress is making you feel lonely or isolated, shared hobbies can also be a good way to meet new people.
  • Spend time in nature – This can help to reduce stress and improve wellbeing. You could try going for a walk in a green space, taking care of indoor plants, or spending time with animals. Our nature and mental health pages have more information.
  • Look after your physical health – Getting enough sleep, staying physically active and eating a balanced diet can make stress easier to manage. Stress can sometimes make these things difficult to look after. But even small changes can make a big difference.


Build your support network

Research shows that having a good support network can help to build resilience and make stress easier to manage. Support from people you trust can make stressful situations easier to manage.

This support could include:

  • Friends and family – Sometimes telling the people close to you how you’re feeling can make a big difference. They might be able to help with some of the things causing you stress.
  • Support at work – For example, this may be from your manager, human resources (HR) department, union representatives or employee assistance scheme. Your wellbeing is important and responsible employers should take it seriously. If you’re worried that your workplace might not be supportive The Health and Safety Executive has information on work-related stress that may also help.
  • Support at university or college – For example, this could be from your tutors, student union or student services.
  • Peer support – If you’re finding things hard, talking to people who have similar feelings or experiences can help. This could be face-to-face at a peer support group, or through an online community like Mind’s Side by Side.


Identify your triggers

Working out what may trigger stress can help you prepare for it. Even if you can’t avoid these situations, being prepared can help. Knowing what you can and cannot change could help you work out the best way to deal with stress.

Take some time to think about situations that might make you feel stressed. You could do this on your own or with someone you trust. You could consider:

  • Situations that come up often and that you worry about, such as paying a bill or attending an appointment.
  • One-off events that are on your mind a lot, like moving house or taking an exam.
  • Ongoing stressful events, like being a carer or experiencing discrimination.
  • Something that you are worried about happening again, such as going back to a place that you had a bad experience.

Reflecting on these things may sometimes be upsetting. If remembering or talking about these experiences makes you feel worse, you can stop.


Organise your time

Some of us may feel stressed because we have a lot of things to manage in our lives. In this case, changing the way we organise our time can help us feel more in control.

If you think this may help, you could:

  • Try to identify when you have the most energy, such as in the morning or in the evening – If you can, do your most important tasks around that time of day, to help you concentrate better.
  • Make a list of things you must do – Arrange them in order of importance. Try to focus on the most urgent thing first. You might find it helpful to create a timetable, planning when to spend time on each task.
  • Set smaller, achievable targets – When we feel stressed, it’s easy to set ourselves large or unrealistic goals. This might be to try to overcome the situation that is making us feel stressed. But often, this can make us feel more stressed and frustrated, if we don’t reach the targets we set. Setting smaller, more achievable goals can help us feel more satisfied and in control.
  • Vary your activities – Try to balance boring tasks with more interesting ones. And mix up stressful tasks with those you find easier, or that you can do more calmly.
  • Try not to do too much at once – If you take on too much, you might find it harder to do any individual task well. This could make you feel even more stressed.
  • Be clear with others about what you can take on – In some situations, it might not always be possible to say no to things or tell people exactly how you feel. But if you can, let people know if their demands are unreasonable or unrealistic.
  • Have breaks and take things slowly – It might be difficult to do this when you’re stressed. But it can help to deal with things better and get through a stressful situation.
  • Ask someone if they can help – For example, you could ask a friend or family member to help with some of your daily tasks. This can give you more time to spend on any tasks that are making you stressed.

If you need any support with your stress issues within your workplace, please don’t hesitate to contact me and we can arrange a call to support you on 07770 302504 or email joanne@chestnutassociates.co.uk