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Stress

Everything you need to know about living well with stress

  • Introduction
  • Symptoms
  • Treatments
  • Daily Living
  • Support
  • Glossary

Introduction

If you think you or someone you know may be experiencing stress, this guide can help you to understand more about what stress is, what causes stress and how to find ways to reduce stress.

You may be wondering, what is stress? In this article, we inform you about symptoms of stress, stress treatments, types of stress and what it is like for people living with stress. We hope this guide is useful to you and helps you to better understand how to deal with stressful situations.

Introduction

What is stress?

Stress is a normal human response in many ways, but for some people, stress becomes an issue that can negatively impact their life. Generally, stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or under pressure and feeling as though you are unable to cope.

Most people feel stressed from time to time, and stress in itself is not always an illness. However, if stress persists for a long time, it can affect many aspects of a person’s life – including their mental and physical health. Stress symptoms can make a person feel out of control or unable to do everyday tasks, and often impacts how they behave. Stress can even change a person’s personality.

Many people are unaware that they are experiencing stress, so we hope this guide helps raise awareness of the condition so that people can talk about it more and learn ways to deal with stressful situations.

Stress may occur alongside other mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, panic disorder and phobias. Stress may also occur as a result of having a health condition. Read our advice about how to stress less if you have a health condition.

Stress is really common. Research by the Mental Health Foundation (2018) found that 74% of people surveyed felt so stressed they were unable to cope, and 51% of these people also reported that they felt depressed. If you think you are stressed, you are not alone, and there are lots of sources of stress support and help for stress available to you. Similarly, there are a range of stress treatments available, and ways to manage stress, which may include psychological therapies, self-help and alternative therapies.

Find out more about stress.

What causes stress?

There are lots of different causes of stress and some people may be aware of what causes stress for them, whereas others may not. Stress is often caused by a variety of factors and each person who experiences stress will feel differently. Causes of stress may include:

Big life events e.g. getting married, being pregnant, having a baby

Family or relationship problems e.g. challenges of being a parent, marital breakdown or divorce, having an affair

Experiencing loss and grief e.g. a loved one or pet passing away, experiencing a miscarriage

Financial challenges e.g. being in debt, finding it hard to manage money, being on a low income

Work e.g. feeling overwhelmed at work, having too much to do at work, having deadlines that you are worried about meeting, being unemployed or looking for work

House-related issues e.g. moving house, having difficulties with neighbours, landlord problems, living with the threat of homelessness

Other mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, etc

Some people are more prone to stress than others, and so what causes stress for one person is not the same as for somebody else. Everyone has a unique experience of stress. Some people can cope with stress symptoms better than others and this may depend on lots of factors, such as the way a person was brought up, their personality, their past experiences, their emotional resilience and even their genetic make-up, which may have an impact on their physical experience of stress hormones.

When we feel overwhelmed or out of control, our body’s biological ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in, which causes excess amounts of cortisol and adrenalin to be released in the body, ready for us to face a perceived threat. A person with a stress diagnosis should learn what their stress triggers are and what causes stress for them, which is an important first step in dealing with stress.

Read more about what causes stress.

Did you know... “Stress is a natural biological response to pressure, but for some people, stress can become too frequent and lead to constant stress symptoms.”

Stress Symptoms

Symptoms of stress may be different for everybody. Here, we discuss the most common stress symptoms.

Everyone experiences stress symptoms from time to time. However, when stress becomes frequent or leads to the stress symptoms listed in this section, it means that stress needs to be better managed for the person’s health and wellbeing.

If stress is affecting a person’s everyday life, they may need to seek support and find the right treatment. If you think someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms of stress below, you may want to try to broach the subject with them and encourage them to talk about their feelings and stress triggers. Talking can be a great help.

If you feel you have symptoms of stress, you may also wish to talk to your GP or visit the NHS Moodzone website for advice and information. It is possible for you to refer yourself to your local NHS wellbeing service for stress treatment.

Introduction

Stress symptoms are often physical, mental or behavioural and a person with stress may experience one, several, or all of the following symptoms:

• Mood issues e.g. irritability, anger, aggressiveness, being ‘snappy’

• Anxiety or uncontrollable worrying

• Perfectionism

• Feeling out of control

• Feeling pressured

• Indecisiveness

• Unable to concentrate

• Constant thoughts – unable to stop thinking

• Feeling tearful or crying easily

• Feeling tired or fatigued

• Loss of libido (interest in sex)

• Stomach problems e.g. constipation or diarrhoea

• Tense muscles

• Sleep problems e.g. unable to fall asleep, frequent wakings, not feeling as though you have had quality sleep

• Headaches and migraines

• Panic attacks or hyperventilating

Physical symptoms of stress are caused by chemical processes occurring in the body, where cortisol and adrenalin make breathing faster, affect digestion, cause muscles to tense and the heart to pound. Feeling this stressed can be scary and can make people think they are ill, which causes further stress and worry.

If you feel you are experiencing any of these symptoms, see your GP or talk to the mental health charity Mind.

Diagnosis of stress

If you think you are experiencing stress and that your health or wellbeing are affected by this condition, you should see your GP and explain the stress symptoms you are feeling.

A GP is likely to ask you some questions and carry out some basic medical checks such as taking your blood pressure. They may ask if there is anything going on in your life that you are finding difficult. Some doctors will make a diagnosis of stress based on your symptoms but they may require you to take some blood tests to find out if there are any underlying health conditions that could be causing some of your symptoms.

If you think you have symptoms of stress, you may wish to look at treatments that you can undertake yourself, often referred to as ‘self-help’.

Read more about stress symptoms and stress diagnosis.

Did you know... “Stress may have numerous causes including difficult life events or even happy life events, work, family life or relationship troubles.”

Treatments for Stress

Here, we discuss stress treatment options including self-help, therapy and medication.

Some people are unaware that they are living with constant or frequently occurring stress symptoms and so realising this, understanding stress and finding the right source of help for stress can be difficult. Some people find seeing their GP is useful and we recommend this as a first step, so that your doctor can ensure there are no medical or health issues that you are unaware of.

There are lots of treatments for stress and some people find there are multiple things they can do to relieve their stress, whilst learning ways to manage it. Stress treatment mostly requires the person to change the way they think and some of the ways they deal with situations that may occur. A person experiencing stress may also be prescribed medication to treat some of their stress symptoms, and we cover this next.

Treatments

Medication treatment for stress

There is no pill that can treat stress but if you see a GP about your symptoms and they confirm a diagnosis of stress, you may be prescribed medications such as:

Antidepressant tablets – usually prescribed if you are showing signs of low mood, depression or anxiety. For more information on antidepressant medication, visit the Rethink website.

Sleeping tablets or tranquilisers – can help if you are having trouble sleeping, as a lack of quality sleep can actually increase cortisol (stress hormone) in the body, leading to further build-up of stress the next day

Medications for the stomach – if you have problems with your gut or digestion that your GP thinks may be stress-related, such as IBS, trapped wind, diarrhoea, constipation, or indigestion, they may be able to prescribe some remedies for these issues

Psychological therapy treatments for stress

Whether or not you decide to visit your GP, you may refer yourself to your local NHS therapy service. This no longer needs a GP practice referral and you can find your local service here. This service will offer you an initial assessment and then recommend the therapy options available to you. Some provide groups and classes for stress management, or online courses that you can do at home.

Depending on the extent of your stress, and if you have related mental health conditions, you may be advised to undertake therapy sessions with a trained therapist. This could be face-to-face, over the phone or online.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

This psychological therapy tries to encourage people to find ways to break down their usual thinking patterns which may have become troublesome. This form of therapy is often very effective for helping people manage stress symptoms as it helps people understand that the way they think about certain situations or events can actually affect the way they feel about them.

For instance, two people may experience a traffic jam, which is a potentially stressful event, but their mindset and thoughts about the situation will dictate how much stress they feel about it and how much it affects their mood. One may think ‘there is little I can do, despite this being very inconvenient’, whereas the other may think ‘this is terrible, I am going to be late, I am going to get fired, I can’t believe this is happening to me…’. CBT would help the second person to explore their negative thought patterns that cause their stress.

Find out more about cognitive behavioural therapy.

Self-help for stress

There are lots of stress support options available if you are interested in finding ways to deal with stress yourself. Self-help apps, websites, books, and online courses mean you can work on your stress in your own time and hopefully reduce your stress symptoms. NHS Moodzone provides lots of ideas for self-help for stress.

GetSelfHelp is also a useful website, full of resources for people to use so they can work through their own problems, including stress.

Relaxation and breathing techniques

Learning to relax the body and to control your breathing can help relieve stress.

When we feel stressed, our body naturally tightens and goes into fight or flight mode. Learning deep muscle relaxation can help the body get used to slowing down, and recover more quickly from stressful events. Learn more about deep muscle relaxation as a treatment for stress.

When we are stressed, our breathing is often short and shallow, so by lengthening and deepening the breath, our body relaxes. It can be difficult at first but once practiced a few times, a person becomes more aware of their breathing and can adopt deeper breathing at times of stress, which can bring some relief.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is becoming more and more popular now and involves spending time each day being aware of the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere but experts recommend taking time to stop all activities and sit without distractions, spending a short time focusing on the breath.

Mindfulness is a type of meditation, which requires the person practicing it to notice when they are thinking about things and then draw their attention back to the breath and the present moment. Over time, practicing mindfulness has been proven to make concentration easier and to physically change the brain, reducing the activity of those areas of the brain responsible for anxiety and stress.

For more information on mindfulness, visit the Mind website. You may also wish to explore apps with audio meditations, such as Headspace or Buddhify.

In the next section, we explore further stress treatments in the form of activities that a person living with stress can do every day, and lifestyle changes that they can make to help them live well with stress and reduce stress symptoms.

Natural and holistic remedies

Some people use holistic treatments and natural remedies to help reduce stress. These may include:

Aromatherapy – uses essential oils such as lavender and eucalyptus to help increase wellbeing. Read more about aromatherapy.

Acupuncture – uses thin needles to stimulate the nervous system. Read more about acupuncture and stress.

Reflexology – a specialist technique that uses massage on the pressure points of the feet to relieve stress and improve wellbeing. Read more about reflexology.

Bach flower remedies – natural products that are taken orally or applied to the skin, which are made of water and flowers, thought to help with emotions, moods, stress and anxiety. Learn more about bach flower remedies.

Some research suggests that holistic treatments work and lots of people feel that they benefit from them. It’s worth checking with your GP if you have any other medical conditions or take any medication though, before embarking on these therapies, and do ensure that you visit a reputable, registered practitioner.

Did you know... “Stress symptoms are varied; they may be physical, emotional, behavioural, and may include feeling under pressure, being angry, experiencing stomach problems or being unable to sleep."

Living with Stress

If you are living with stress and it is affecting your life, there are changes you can make to help manage stress better.

Stress is difficult to live with and can affect all areas of a person’s life. It’s also difficult for loved ones to live with. In this section, we look at the impact stress can have, and positive ways to change your life to help live with stress symptoms. We explore the impact of diet for stress and look at ways diet can be improved to ensure optimum nutrition. We also explore exercise for stress, and how this can be a crucial factor in beating the condition.

Introduction

Impact on daily living

Stress may affect lots of areas of life, including:

Stress and employment – work can be a big source of stress or a stress trigger for some people. You may feel stressed by deadlines, difficult work colleagues or managers, workload, pressure to succeed, or many other factors. If you are feeling stressed at work, you may wish to talk to your employer or manager to discuss your issues. They may be able to find ways to support you, which is in their best interest as millions of sick days are used each year by people living with stress or stress-related illnesses. Read more advice about how to manage work stress

Stress and health – stress causes symptoms that are physical and can make a person feel unwell. Feeling unwell can lead to increased worry and make stress symptoms worse. Stress can lead a person to eating unhealthily, not eating enough, sleeping badly and not exercising, which can all contribute to poor health. Taking this into account, stress may also increase a person’s risk of developing other health conditions such as angina, obesity, fertility problems, menstrual cycle issues and hormonal imbalance in women, and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Stress may also increase a person’s chance of catching common colds and viruses, as it lowers the body’s immunity

Stress and relationships – stress symptoms can be difficult for loved ones to understand, especially if they’ve never experienced stress themselves. Stress can affect relationships, as a stressed person may display symptoms such as irritability, anger and low mood. Some people may feel unable to talk about their stress with those closest to them, which may create barriers in their relationships. Many people experiencing stress also do not make time for, or feel able to maintain, close friendships because their stress affects their desire to connect with others, a counter-productive side effect as connection can actually help reduce stress. Stress can also be caused by difficulties in a relationship. The charity Relate may be able to help if you and your partner need stress support

Stress and education – stress is not solely an experience of adults, and many young people experience stress. School, college or university work may be stress triggers, or other factors in a younger person’s life, such as relationships, peer pressure and family life, may be what causes stress. Read more about stress management for children and young people

Self-care as a treatment for stress

People experiencing stress symptoms may benefit from improving their self-care, which is important for a person’s general sense of wellbeing. These factors are areas in which people often find they are neglecting themselves:

Sleep – stress often becomes worse due to lack of sleep, and sleep problems can be a symptom of stress because cortisol builds up when a person has not had adequate sleep. Find out more about why sleep is so important for our health

Enjoyment – many people experiencing stress find they rarely do anything for their own enjoyment, be it hobbies or fun activities, and increasing the time a person spends on doing things they enjoy can actually counter stress

Exercise – many of us do not get enough exercise or do enough physical activity, but a person dealing with stress may find it even harder to find the time to exercise. Exercise may feel like another chore that needs to be done, in an already busy schedule. However, exercise is proven to lower cortisol levels and boost feel-good endorphins, which all helps to manage stress levels better

Socialising and connecting with others – it’s common for people with stress to avoid social situations or find spending time with others outside their immediate family difficult. However, making time for other people can increase a person’s sense of wellbeing and help them feel less isolated. It can help them realise they have a network that can support them and who they may be able to talk to about their feelings

Assertiveness – many people feel that they take on too much due to not being able to say no to people’s requests. This can be at home or work. Learning to be more assertive can be difficult, but ultimately it can help make you feel more empowered

Writing feelings down – keeping a diary of thoughts and feelings, or recording positive features of each day can really boost positive thinking and help a person with stress see the good in each day. Other ideas may include: writing down achievements, writing down problems and possible solutions, and writing down things you have done to look after your own needs and self-care each day

Diet – read on to find out ways to eat more healthily and help fight symptoms of stress

It’s a good idea to have a plan of what you intend to do each day to help manage your stress, and you may benefit from creating a personal action plan.

Diet for stress

Food is so important to our wellbeing as well as our physical health. Getting the right nutrients makes our bodies operate at their best. Eating an unhealthily diet can actually cause more stress within the body, and upsets how our nervous system and digestion functions. Here, we highlight the key changes a person can make to eat a healthier diet for stress.

In the body, our adrenal glands produce hormones including cortisol (the stress hormone) and can become overworked if a person is excessively stressed. This can cause the glands to produce more cortisol and adrenalin, leading to increased stress and affecting blood sugar levels. Therefore, a healthy ‘no stress diet’ needs to avoid blood sugar spikes from excess sugar and junk food, and feed the body with optimum levels of all vitamins and minerals.

A balanced breakfast is really important as we need to fuel our bodies to cope with the demands of the rest of the day. Cutting down on caffeine consumption can also help relieve stress, since caffeine is a stimulant that can increase cortisol in the body.

Eating protein at each meal is important, especially for people experiencing stress, as the body needs more protein, and protein ensures that glucose is released more steadily into the body, avoiding those blood sugar spikes.

Many people with stress may overeat or under-eat. Some may eat for comfort and some may skip meals. Stress can take away hunger or encourage unhealthy snacking, particularly if a person is tired and feels they need a sugar or carbohydrate boost. A healthy ‘no stress diet’ should include three meals a day with healthy snacks in between, and avoid high sugar foods such as biscuits and sweets.

If you have stress symptoms and want to try a healthier diet for stress relief, download the Eatwell Guide.

Many people take herbal, vitamin and mineral supplements for stress. Always speak to your GP before taking stress supplements of any sort, including B vitamins, vitamin D or magnesium.

Read more information on how food affects mood.

Exercise for stress

Exercise boosts feel-good hormones called endorphins, and burns off excess adrenalin that the body creates when it is responding to stress. Exercise can increase appetite, reduce stress and boost energy. Any type of physical activity counts, and becoming more active may also give you an opportunity to meet new people and make new connections, which can also help with stress. Exercise for stress could involve going for a walk, going to the gym, jogging, dancing around the room, joining a class or doing yoga, which is proven to reduce stress levels and enhance feelings of wellbeing.

Read more about getting active for mental wellbeing.

Stress and employment

People with stress are usually able to work, but work may be a stress trigger and part of the reason they are feeling stressed in the first place. If this is the case, it is important to tackle this issue head on and make changes in order to reduce your overall stress. Some people may find that talking to their manager can help them manage their workload or stress better. Some people may find that their stress is reduced by changing jobs e.g. if their stress is caused by a difficult colleague or manager. It’s advisable to not make rash decisions about changing jobs, and to look for solutions in the current situation.

Many people find that their stress results in them taking time off work, either directly due to stress or from ill health caused by being stressed. Many employers are keen to support their staff to ensure they are able to work and find ways to help them reduce stress whilst at work.

If you are finding work really difficult, speak to your GP or read this blog for tips on coping with work anxiety. If you are an employer concerned about anxiety at work, Anxiety UK offers online resources that may be useful for you.

If you are an employer and are concerned that one of your employees may be experiencing stress, or that stress at your workplace may be a wider problem, you may wish to read more information from the Stress Management Society.

Did you know... “There are ways to reduce and treat stress such as therapy, self-help, self-care and mindfulness.”

Support for Stress

Remember, you are not alone!

We hope this guide has helped answer your questions and explained how symptoms of stress can be extremely difficult to live with. If you think you may be experiencing stress symptoms, you may wish to speak to your GP or explore the stress treatments we have highlighted in this article. If living with stress is affecting your life, it is time to learn ways to manage stress and take better care of yourself.

Stress is really common and there are lots of stress support service available to you. Help for stress is widely available and here, we provide a list of useful sources for you to explore. Talking to other people who experience frequent stress and who are learning to manage their stress can be beneficial, which is why we’ve included certain stress support groups in the list below.

Introduction

Communities

Anxiety and Stress Disorders (Safe Haven) Support Group – a Facebook community for people to share their experiences of living with stress or anxiety

Big White Wall – a forum for people to talk about anything that is causing them emotional distress, such as stress, depression, relationship breakdown, and so on

Stress/Anxiety and Anger Management Support Group – an online, Facebook community for people to share experiences of stress and related issues of anxiety and anger

Resources

Get Self Help – a website full of practical, self-help resources such as worksheets, and vast amounts of information for people experiencing a wide range of issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression

Mental Health Foundation – a charity supporting people with mental health issues, featuring information about stress, anxiety and many other conditions

Mind – the leading mental health charity, offering a wealth of advice and information online, details about stress and how to make lifestyle changes to combat stress

NHS – official medical information on what causes stress and stress symptoms, as well as lots of advice about managing stress

One You – a website from the NHS and Public Health England which gives information and advice about how to make changes to have a healthier mind and body, including stress support and a quiz to help identify areas you may wish to change

Rethink – a charity supporting people with mental health problems and their families, with lots of web-based information about stress and related issues such as anxiety

Samaritans – a charity providing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week telephone helpline support for people having emotional difficulties, mental health problems, suicidal thoughts, or any related problems

Stress Management Society – a charity focussed on supporting people experiencing stress, and supporting employers to create stress-free workplaces, with a website featuring lots of information about what stress is and techniques for managing it

Young Minds – the leading charity aiming to support young people with mental health difficulties, with advice on how to live with stress at uni or school and other information about related mental health conditions such as anxiety

Did you know... “A healthy lifestyle, with a varied and balanced diet, and frequent exercise can be really beneficial for people living with stress.”

Glossary

Unsure what something means? Checkout our Glossary section below.

Although we always try to explain things as simply and as clearly as possible, sometimes it’s necessary to use the correct medical terminology. Medical terms are often known for being tricky to pronounce and if you’re not an expert in the subject, they can also be a little difficult to understand. Below, we’ve put together a list of terms used on this page along with a brief explanation of what they mean to help make your understanding of stress as straightforward as possible.

Introduction

Adrenalin

– a hormone produced in the body which gives you energy, raises blood pressure, increases heart rate, and prepares the body for action

Antidepressant

– a type of drug medication to treat mood disorders, which may work by changing the chemicals in the brain

B vitamins

– there are lots of types of B vitamins, e.g. vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B9 (folate/folic acid), vitamin B12, which are all essential nutrients to keep the body’s nervous system healthy. Most are available through food but some people may need to take supplements

Carbohydrates

– found in foods, carbohydrates are sugars which give the body energy

Cortisol

– a hormone that is involved in a variety of bodily processes including metabolism, inflammation, blood sugar, blood pressure, salt and water balance. It is also released during periods of stress and can be the cause of many symptoms, such as palpitations and tension

Emotional resilience

– this is a concept that describes the level of ability a person has to deal with difficulties that occur in life, with less emotional resilient people perhaps experiencing more stress, worry and have trouble adapting to changes

Endorphins

– hormones produced in the brain that are released to relieve pain or discomfort in the body, and which give feelings of pleasure

Fight or flight response

– a state of arousal in the body when the brain perceives a physical or emotional threat, so prepares the organs and body to respond

Magnesium

– needed in the body to regulate blood glucose, help the body produce energy, maintain immunity and the function of the nervous system

Phobias

– a very extreme fear of something

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

– a disorder where a person experiences stress and anxiety after a traumatic event, which many involve reliving the experience through flashbacks

Protein

– the human body needs protein to repair tissue and make enzymes and chemicals within the body; it is important to eat enough protein each day

Psychological therapy

– treatment for various disorders related to the mind, which varies according to the discipline of the therapist and theoretical frameworks that they use to structure their therapy e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy, compassion therapy, psychoanalysis, talking therapy, etc

Vitamin D

– essential to the human body, vitamin D is usually absorbed though food and sunlight, but some people need to take supplements in order to avoid becoming deficient

Last updated on 06/08/2019

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