Experiencing ‘stress’ is a part of life. Many of us talk about stress and feeling stressed. This is usually when we have too much to do at work or at home, too much on our minds, other people are making unreasonable demands or we are dealing with situations that we have little control over.

The experience of stress is often the body’s reaction to difficult situations (both actual and perceived). When a person is placed in a difficult situation, a chemical reaction occurs that allows you to act in a way to keep yourself safe. This is known as “fight-or-flight,” or the stress response. The effects of the stress response include; the heart begins to race, breathing quickens, muscles tighten and blood pressure rises.

Stress means different things to different people. What causes stress in one person may not in another. Some people are better able to manage certain types of stress. Furthermore, not all stress is bad. In short bursts, stress often helps people accomplish tasks and prevents them getting hurt. Therefore, humans are designed to tolerate small amounts of stress but we are not very good at managing long-term, chronic stress.

Am I stressed?

Stress can affect all aspects of life, including emotions, behaviours, thinking ability (cognition) and physical health. However, as individuals manage stress in different ways, symptoms can vary.

Emotional aspects of stress include:

  • Becoming easily agitated or frustrated
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you need to take control
  • Difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
  • Feeling negatively about yourself (low self-esteem)
  • Avoiding other people

Physical aspects of stress include:

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation and nausea
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire or ability
  • Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Clenched jaw and grinding teeth (especially whilst sleeping)

Cognitive aspects of stress include:

  • Constant worrying about the future
  • Racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness and disorganisation
  • Difficulty focusing on tasks
  • Poor judgment
  • Being pessimistic

Behavioral aspects of stress include:

  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
  • Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating more than usual
  • Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
  • Increased ‘nervous behaviours’ such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing

When is stress a problem?

This can differ between people depending on their personality, their coping skills, the severity of the symptoms, the support they have around them and the demands of life. What is not seen as a problem by one person may cause a number of difficulties for someone else. It is about how it affects you, what it is interfering with and what it is stopping you from doing. Symptom severity in itself does not necessarily indicate how much of a problem stress may be in a person’s life. What matters is whether it is a problem for you. Often a little stress is not something to be worried about. However, ongoing ‘chronic stress’ can cause or exacerbate many physical and mental health problems, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks and stroke
  • Obesity and other eating disorders
  • Menstrual problems
  • Sexual difficulty, such as impotence and premature ejaculation in men and loss of sexual desire in both men and women
  • Skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, and permanent hair loss
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as gastritis, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and irritable colon
  • Mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety

There are a specific set of circumstances when help should be sought more urgently and these are outlined in the section below.

What helps?

Stress is a part of life and therefore what is really important is how people manage it. One of the best things an individual can do to prevent stress and the health consequences that come with it is to know their stress triggers (to notice when life might become stressful) and symptoms (to notice when they are starting to experience stress). There are also many things individuals can do to manage stress more effectively. For example, learning techniques to relax, taking regular exercise and adopting good time-management techniques.

However, these practical changes are not always adequate in developing strategies to manage stress successfully. Studies have found that mindfulness (an aspect of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – ACT) can be helpful in reducing stress and improving mood. The evidence base suggests that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and ACT are both effective in helping people manage their experiences of stress. CBT has the strong evidence base for its effectiveness at managing stress and anxiety and the long term effects of this treatment often far exceed those of medication. However, everyone is an individual and although mindfulness, CBT or ACT can be extremely effective for managing stress, sometimes a different therapeutic approach or a therapy tailored to the individual and their needs is more appropriate. The assessment stage of any therapeutic intervention provides an opportunity to develop an in depth understanding of your difficulties on which a tailored individual therapy can be developed specifically for you.