What is stress?
It’s very hard to define exactly what stress is, even though we all know what it means to feel stressed. It’s usually a reaction to a situation that puts pressure on us. As feelings of stress differ from person to person, it can be difficult to manage as it’s hard to work out exactly what’s causing it. However, stress should never be underestimated. The impact of stress on your physical and mental wellbeing can be devastating if you’re unable to manage it.
Though stress is not a psychiatric diagnosis, it’s closely linked with your mental health in 3 key ways:
- Mental health problems can cause stress – day-to-day management of your mental health disorder can cause additional stress.
- Stress can cause a mental health problem – excess stress for a prolonged period can lead to anxiety and depression.
- Lack of stress resilience can worsen an existing mental health problem – managing a mental health disorder is difficult and additional external stress factors can worsen the impact of the disorder. It is always helpful to talk to someone if you’re struggling.
Signs and symptoms of stress
Stress can manifest itself in emotional feelings and physical feelings.
Emotionally you may feel:
- More irritable than usual and snap at people
- Overwhelmed or like your to-do list is endless
- Anxious, nervous or sense of dread
- Experience racing thoughts
- Unable to switch off and enjoy yourself
- Uninterested in life and unable to concentrate
- Like you’ve lost your sense of humour
- Lonely or tearful
- Unable to make a decision
Physically you may experience:
- Hyperventilating or feeling like you might have a panic attack
- Racing heartbeat
- Muscle tension
- Blurred eyesight or sore eyes
- Sleep problems
- Low libido
- High blood pressure and/or chest pains
- Indigestions or heartburn
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Nauseous and/or dizzy
People who are experiencing acute stress may also notice changes in their eating and drinking habits; including eating more or less than usual and increased alcohol consumption or smoking more than usual.
Causes of stress
Stress is normally triggered by life events that are happening to you. This can be extra pressure at work or at home. Or it could be facing big changes such as moving, a new job or the arrival of a new baby.
Worrying about something that’s not in your control or having responsibilities that you find overwhelming, either at home or at work, can also be a cause of stress. However, it’s not just changes that can cause stress. Sometimes feeling stuck with not enough change at work or in your daily life can negatively impact your mental health.
It could be one thing causing you stress, or it could be many mini stressors building up over time. It all depends on who you are as a person and how different situations affect you.
Dealing with stress during the coronavirus outbreak
The coronavirus epidemic has put many of us under huge amounts of stress. Families are having to learn how to live together under lockdown, juggling work commitment with childcare and home-schooling. Financial strain from redundancies or businesses being forced to close has put immense stress on both employees and business owners.
Fear of the virus itself and health concerns for your loved ones and the wider population is also additional worry that we are all facing. It’s important during these times to try and manage your stress as much as possible and ask for help when you need it.
Treatment for stress can be broken down into three main categories: self-care, therapy and medication. For the most part, self-care and learning how to control your stress is an invaluable resource to help you navigate through life. However, when stress becomes too much to deal with on your own you should always seek professional advice, no matter how trivial you may feel it is.
A key part of dealing with stress is to develop emotional resilience. This does not mean ignore it. This means taking steps to give yourself the best chance possible to deal with challenges that come your way.
- Lifestyle changes – carve out time for you do things you enjoy; a hobby, seeing friends, implement a better work-life balance
- Priorities sleep – sleep is paramount to emotional resilience. Make sure you’re getting between 7-9 hours a night.
- Exercise – being more active is important for your physical and mental health. Even a short daily walk will help.
- Nourish yourself – food affects your mood! Eat balanced meals and try not to skip meals, or rely on sugary snacks
- Relaxation techniques – studies have shown that mindfulness can reduce your overall stress levels, and practising it can rewire how your brain reacts to stressful situations
Be kind to yourself. Sometimes stress affects us more than usual, and you should always treat yourself with kindness and patience. Self-care is all about giving yourself the best support possible to be more emotionally resilient.
If you need more care then you can give yourself, this does not mean you have failed. This means you have the strength to ask for help, and you should do so.
Talking to a trained professional can help you learn how to deal with stressful situations through structured treatment plans. These can include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and guided mindfulness.
Speaking to GP can help rule out any physical reasons that may be causing you to feel stressed and refer you to a counsellor should you require it.
There is no medication to “cure” stress, however, a qualified doctor can prescribe certain medications to help manage your symptoms. This include:
- Antidepressants if you’re experiencing depression or anxiety as a result of feeling stressed
- Sleeping pills if you’re having trouble sleeping
- Medication to help with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or high blood pressure which may worsen during stressful times
As always, it’s important to seek advice from a doctor before taking any new medication or altering the dosage of any medication you’re on.
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Reviewed by Dr Daniel Fenton, Clinical Director at The Doctors Clinic Group
Published: May 2020 | Review date: May 2023