What is stress?

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. It’s our body’s natural response to pressure and can be helpful in motivating us to get things done or to respond well in a crisis. However, if the pressure continues for too long, our stress response can become overwhelming and can begin to have a major impact on our emotional and physical wellbeing. So what is stress? And when does it become a problem?

Am I stressed?

Symptoms of stress can vary from person to person. Many of the physical responses are part of our ancient fight or flight mechanism, designed to help our bodies cope in an emergency. However, lots of the modern causes of stress such as divorce, financial problems and work issues can’t be solved by fighting or fleeing, so these symptoms can be less of a help and more of a hindrance. Indeed, some of the symptoms can feel quite frightening and can make us feel more stressed. Here is a list of some common physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms of stress.

  • Your body: Frequent headaches, sweating, stomach ache or nausea, racing heart, dry mouth, muscle tension, feeling faint or dizzy, changes in breathing, feeling exhausted, increased urge to use the toilet.
  • Your feelings: Anxious, angry, irritable, wound up, unhappy, teary, guilty, overwhelmed, detached.
  • Your thoughts: Constantly worrying, racing thoughts, overly critical, difficulty concentrating, pessimistic.
  • Your behaviour: Avoiding daily tasks and responsibilities, avoiding social situations or activities you used to enjoy, arguing or shouting, not sleeping, biting nails, grinding teeth, drinking or smoking more, changes in eating habits, unable to settle, unable to finish tasks, neglecting self-care.

Have you been experiencing any of these symptoms? These are short-term effects of stress, however the long-term effects can be much more serious. They can include an increase in blood pressure, stomach ulcers, a lowered immune system, increased risk of heart attacks and severe depression or anxiety. Therefore, it’s really important to learn how to manage your stress before it becomes a bigger issue.

Why do we experience stress?

There are many causes of stress and they can vary massively from person to person. It could be a major life event, or it could be a series of smaller events that add up. Sometimes it’s both. Sometimes our responses to our external stresses can leave us feeling even worse. For example, by getting tense and irritable or by avoiding the activities that make us happy, we might end up feeling more stressed. Therefore, it’s important to identify what it is that is making us stressed and be aware of how we are responding. Be kind to yourself and give yourself the time, space and resources you need to deal with the stress.

Understanding how stress is caused and how it affects us is the first step in learning how to manage it.