We all experience stress in our lives. Because the vast majority of health problems are caused or influenced by stress, it’s important to understand how stress affects your body and learn effective stress management techniques to make stress work for you rather than against you.
What Is Stress?
Stress is your body’s response to changes in your life. Because life involves constant change—ranging from everyday, routine changes like commuting from home to work to adapting to major life changes like marriage, divorce, or death of a loved one—there is no avoiding stress.1
Your goal shouldn’t be to eliminate all stress but to eliminate unnecessary stress and effectively manage the rest. There are some common cause of stressthat many people experience, but each person is different.
Everyone experiences stress. However, when it is affecting your life, health and wellbeing, it is important to tackle it as soon as possible, and while stress affects everyone differently, there are common signs and symptoms you can look out for:
- feelings of constant worry or anxiety
- feelings of being overwhelmed
- difficulty concentrating
- mood swings or changes in your mood
- irritability or having a short temper
- difficulty relaxing
- low self-esteem
- eating more or less than usual
- changes in your sleeping habits
- using alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs to relax
- aches and pains, particularly muscle tension
- diarrhoea and constipation
- feelings of nausea or dizziness
- loss of sex drive.
If you are experiencing these symptoms for a prolonged period, and feel they are affecting your everyday life or are making you feel unwell, you should speak to your GP.
Stress can come from many sources, which are known as “stressors.” Because our experience of what is considered “stressful” is created by our unique perceptions of what we encounter in life (based on our own mix of personality traits, available resources, and habitual thought patterns), a situation may be perceived as “stressful” by one person and merely “challenging” by someone else.
Simply put, one person’s stress trigger may not register as stressful to someone else. That said, certain situations tend to cause more stress in most people and can increase the risk of burnout.
For example, when we find ourselves in situations where there are high demands on us but we little control and few choices, we are likely to experience stress. We might also feel stress when we don’t feel equipped; where we may be harshly judged by others; and where consequences for failure are steep or unpredictable.
Many people are stressed by their jobs, relationships, financial issues, and health problems, as well as more mundane things like clutter or busy schedules. Learning skills to cope with these stressors can help reduce your experience of stress.1
Just as stress is perceived differently by each of us, stress affects us all in ways that are unique to us. One person may experience headaches, while another may find stomach upset is a common reaction, and a third may experience any of a number of other symptoms.
While we all react to stress in our own ways, there is a long list of commonly experienced effects of stress that range from mild to life-threatening. Stress can affect immunity, which can impact virtually all areas of health. Stress can affect mood in many ways as well. Creating a stress management plan is often one part of a plan for overall wellness.
If you find yourself experiencing physical symptoms you think may be related to stress, talk to your doctor to be sure you are doing what you can to safeguard your health. Symptoms that may be exacerbated by stress are not “all in your head” and need to be taken seriously.
Three steps to take when feeling stressed
1. Realise when it is causing you a problem
- Try to make the connection between feeling tired or ill and the pressures you are faced with
- Look out for physical warnings such as tense muscles, over-tiredness, headaches or migraines
2. Identify the causes
- Try to identify the underlying causes
- Sort the possible reasons for your stress into three categories 1) those with a practical solution 2) those that will get better given time and 3) those you can’t do anything about
- Try to release the worry of those in the second and third groups and let them go
3. Review your lifestyle
- Could you be taking on too much?
- Are there things you are doing which could be handed over to someone else?
- Can you do things in a more leisurely way?
- To act on the answer to these questions, you may need to prioritise things you are trying to achieve and re-organise your life
- This will help to release pressure that can come from trying to do everything at once
Stress can be effectively managed in many different ways. The best stress management plans usually include a mix of stress relievers that address stress physically and psychologically and help to develop resilience and coping skills.
Use Quick Stress Relievers
Some stress relief techniques can work in just a few minutes to calm the body’s stress response. These techniques offer a “quick fix” that helps you feel calmer at the moment, and this can help in several ways.
When your stress response is not triggered, you may approach problems more thoughtfully and proactively. You may be less likely to lash out at others out of frustration, which can keep your relationships healthier. Nipping your stress response in the bud can also keep you from experiencing chronic stress.
Quick stress relievers like breathing exercises, for example, may not build your resilience to future stress or minimize the stressors that you face. But they can help calm the body’s physiology once the stress response is triggered.2
Develop Stress-Relieving Habits
Some techniques are less convenient to use when you are in the middle of a stressful situation. But if you practice them regularly, they can help you manage stress in general by being less reactive to it and more able to reverse your stress response quickly and easily.
Long-term healthy habits, like exercise or regular meditation, can help to promote resilience toward stressors if you make them a regular part of your life.3 Communication skills and other lifestyle skills can be helpful in managing stressors and changing how we feel from “overwhelmed” to “challenged” or even “stimulated.”
Eliminate Stressors When You Can
You may not be able to completely eliminate stress from your life or even the biggest stressors, but there are areas where you can minimize it and get it to a manageable level.
Any stress that you can cut out can minimize your overall stress load. For example, ending even one toxic relationship can help you more effectively deal with other stress you experience because you may feel less overwhelmed.4
Discovering a wide variety of stress management techniques, and then choosing a mix that fits your needs, can be a key strategy for effective stress relief.
There are a number of common questions that you might ask about stress and stress management.
Is All Stress Harmful to Health?
There are several different types of stress, and not all are harmful. Eustress, for example, is a positive form of stress. But chronic stress has been linked to many serious health issues and is the type of negative stress most often mentioned in the news.1 While we want to manage or eliminate negative stress, we also want to keep positive forms of stress in our lives to help us remain vital and alive.
However, if we experience too much stress in our lives, even “good” stress can contribute to excessive stress levels, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed or having your stress response triggered for too long. This is why it is still important to learn to relax your body and mind periodically and cut down on unnecessary stress whenever possible.
How Can I Tell When I’m Too Stressed?
Stress affects us all in different ways, not all of which are negative. In fact, the stress of an exciting life can actually serve as a good motivator and keep things interesting. When stress levels get too intense, however, there are some stress symptoms that many people experience.
For example, headaches, irritability, and “fuzzy thinking” can all be symptoms that you’re under too much stress.1 While not everybody who’s under stress will experience these specific symptoms, many will.
If you find that you don’t realize how stressed you are until you are overwhelmed, it’s important to learn to notice your body’s subtle cues and your own behavior, almost like an outside observer might. To notice how your body is reacting to stress, you can try body scan meditation (it helps relax at the same time).
What Can I Do When I Feel Overwhelmed?
We all feel overwhelmed from time to time; that’s normal. While it’s virtually impossible to eliminate times when events conspire and the body’s stress response is triggered, there are ways that you can quickly reverse your body’s reaction to stress, buffering the damage to your health and keeping your thinking clear, so you can more effectively deal with what’s going on in the moment.
Is There a Way to Be Less Affected by Stress?
By practicing regular stress management techniques, you can eliminate some of the stress you feel and make yourself more resilient in the face of stress in the future. There are several things you can try, ranging from a morning walk to an evening journalingpractice to just making more time for friends. The trick is to find something that fits with your lifestyle and personality, so it’s easier to stick with.
What happens to my body when I experience stress?
People react differently to stress. Some common symptoms of stress include sleeping problems, sweating or a change in appetite.
Symptoms like these are triggered by a rush of stress hormones in your body which, when released, allow you to deal with pressures or threats. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate and increase the rate at which you perspire. This prepares your body for an emergency response. These hormones can also reduce blood flow to your skin and reduce your stomach activity. Cortisol, another stress hormone, releases fat and sugar into your system to boost your energy.
As a result, you may experience headaches, muscle tension, pain, nausea, indigestion and dizziness. You may also breathe more quickly, have palpitations or suffer from various aches and pains. In the long-term, you may be putting yourself at risk from heart attacks and stroke.
All these changes are your body’s way of making it easier for you to fight or run away and once the pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels will usually return to normal. However, if you’re constantly under stress, these hormones remain in your body, leading to the symptoms of stress. If you’re stuck in a busy office or on an overcrowded train, you can’t fight or run away, so you can’t use up the chemicals your own body makes to protect you. Over time, the build-up of these chemicals and the changes they produce can be damaging for your health.
- National Institute of Mental Health. 5 Things You Should Know About Stress.
- Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, et al. The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Front Psychol. 2017;8:874. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine. Mind and Body Approaches for Stress: What the Science Says. 2020.
- Bota PG, Miropolskiy E, Nguyen V. Stop caretaking the borderline or narcissist: How to end the drama and get on with life. Ment Illn. 2017;9(1):6985. doi:10.4081/mi.2017.6985
- Lehrer PM, Woolfolk RL, Sime WE. Principles and Practice of Stress Management. 3rd edition. New York: The Guilford Press; 2007.
- Anxiety UK. “Stress.” Available at: https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/our-services/get-help/[Accessed on 22/11/16].
- NHS Choices (2014). “Struggling with stress?” Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/understandi…[Accessed on 17/11/15].
- Cohen, S. & Hoberman, H.M. (1983). Positive events and social supports as buffers of life change stress. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 13, 99–125. Available at: http://www.midss.org/sites/default/files/chips.pdf[Accessed on 23/11/15].
- Groesz, L., McCoy, S., Carl, J., Saslow, L., Stewart, J., Adler, N., Laraia, B. & Epel, E. (2012). What is eating you? Stress and the drive to eat. Appetite, 58 (2), 717-721.
- Gray, J.A. (1988). The Psychology of Fear and Stress (2nd Ed). Cambridge University Press: New York.
- Mason, J.W. (1968). A review of psychoendocrine research on the pituitary-adrenal cortical system. Psychosom med, 30, 576-607.
- Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D. & Miller, G.E. (2007). Psychological Stress and Disease, JAMA, 298 (4), 1685-1687.
- Lazarus, R.S. & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal & Coping. Springer Publishing Company: New York.
- McEwen, B.S. (2008). Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. Eur J Pharmacol., 583 (2-3), 174-185.