We all get stressed from time to time - whether it’s down to a heavy workload, or a big life change like moving house. In fact, 74% of people in the UK are estimated to have felt so stressed during the past year that they were too overwhelmed to cope, according to a YouGov survey.
Whilst it’s a huge health problem - contributing to some 12.5 million working days lost a year - stress is actually the body’s natural fight or flight response to different situations.
What are the signs and symptoms of stress?
Stress hormones - like cortisol - are produced when your autonomic nervous system reacts to a situation you’re experiencing.
However, these hormones can affect you in both physical and emotional ways - and whilst it is treated as a mental health condition, it can seriously affect your physical health. You might experience:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling nervous
- Feeling tearful
- Unable to relax and ‘switch off’
- Difficulties sleeping
- Panic attacks
- Stomach problems
- Sexual problems
- High blood pressure
If you start to recognise these signs, try to identify the situations in your life that are causing you to experience stress. You can then begin taking steps to manage your response to these life events and the symptoms of stress that you are experiencing.
It’s important to notice when you’re feeling stressed, so you can avoid getting sick. A study into the relationship between long-term stress and the immune system found that chronic stress can start to manifest as physical illness. This is in contrast to short-term pressure which, if anything, improves the immune system.
Chronic stress can also lead to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, but the risk of this can be reduced with proper management.
What are the causes of stress?
Stress can be caused by pretty much anything - it’s very personal to you. It is a side effect of experiencing a situation that puts a lot of pressure on you, and how you react to this.
This can include your health (or a friend or family member’s), your financial situation, your personal life or work-related situations. A 2015 study found that the biggest causes of heightened stress levels in the UK are:
- Money worries
- The amount of pressure we put on ourselves
- Lack of sleep
- Health concerns (both physical and mental)
It’s not always negative situations that can cause stress, though. Many people experience stress when they’re approaching an exciting - but big - event in their life, like getting married or having a baby. This is because these require a lot of mental and emotional energy.
How to deal with stress
As the effects of stress can start to impact your ability to carry out and enjoy daily life, it’s important to identify coping mechanisms that work for you. These should help you deal with your emotions when you know a long period of high-pressure situations - or even just one event - is approaching.
Identify and address your triggers
The first step to learning how to cope is to identify the situations in your life that are causing you to feel this way. Whilst you shouldn’t avoid these problems, figuring out what they are will help you find ways to manage how you feel about them.
Even though you won’t be in control of every situation, you can think of strategies to cope with them and relieve stress where possible, in other ways.
Talk to someone
Whether you feel comfortable opening up to a family member, friend or doctor, this can be a big step in helping you reduce your stress.
Someone close to you may be able to provide additional support in some areas of your life, or directly advise and help you with any problems you’re experiencing.
You can also refer yourself to talking therapies. These are often meetings with a professional either in person or on the phone.
You may choose to practice Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). This is aimed at helping you understand your thoughts and triggers, and learn strategies you can use to respond positively to stressful situations. This is available on the NHS.
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present moment, helping you to understand yourself and a stressful situation with more clarity.
This practice of self-awareness helps us to identify our troublesome thoughts before they take over, and deal with them early on to prevent them becoming a source of stress. This should help reduce the amount of pressure you put on yourself too, as one of the biggest causes of stress in the UK.
Make some lifestyle changes
Sleep is in the top five causes of stress in the UK - are you getting enough? If you’re having problems sleeping, try some of these expert tips on getting a good night’s kip.
Whilst things like your diet may not be causing you stress, they won’t help you manage your emotions or physical symptoms. For example:
- Healthy eating can improve your mood - your gut is connected to your emotions, and eating the right foods can help you feel happier and calmer.
- Increased alcohol and caffeine intake is common in those looking to relieve stress, but try to avoid both. They can impact your anxiety levels, amplifying stress.
- Exercise has long been hailed as a stress-buster. It can help you clear your mind, and the release of endorphin hormones will help you feel happier. Even a short walk could help you de-stress.