Stress

Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure.

Pressure turns into stress when you feel unable to cope. People have different ways of reacting to stress, so a situation that feels stressful to one person may in fact be motivating to another.

Many of life's demands can cause stress, especially work, relationships and money problems, and when you feel stressed, it can affect everything you do.

Stress can affect how you feel, how you think, how you behave and how your body works. Sleeping problems, sweating, loss of appetite and difficulty concentrating are common signs of stress.

Managing stress

Stress is not itself an illness but it can cause serious illness if not tackled. It is important to recognise the symptoms of stress early.

This will help you figure out ways of coping and save you from adopting unhealthy coping methods, such as drinking or smoking.

Spotting the early signs of stress will also help prevent it worsening and potentially causing serious complications, such as high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.

While there is little you can do to prevent stress, there are many things you can do to manage stress more effectively, such as learning how to relax, taking regular exercise and adopting good time management techniques.

When to see your GP

If you've tried self-help techniques and they aren't working, make an appointment to see your GP. They may suggest other coping techniques or recommend some form of counselling. If your stress is causing serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, you may need medication or further tests.

Mental health issues, including stress, anxiety and depression, are the reason for one in five visits to a GP.



Symptoms of stress often build up gradually before you start noticing them.

Stress can affect how you feel, how you think, how you behave and how your body works.

It affects people in different ways but if you are stressed you may have some of the following symptoms: 

Your feelings

You may feel:

  • irritable
  • anxious
  • low in self-esteem
  • have a low mood

Your thoughts

You may find that you:

  • have racing thoughts 
  • worry constantly
  • imaginine the worst
  • go over and over things

Your behaviour

You may notice you're:

  • having temper outbursts
  • drinking more
  • smoking more
  • on the go all the time
  • talking more or faster
  • changing your eating habits
  • feeling unsociable
  • being forgetful or clumsy
  • being unreasonable
  • struggling to concentrate

Your body

You may be suffering from:

  • headaches
  • muscle tension and pain
  • stomach problems
  • sweating
  • feeling dizzy
  • bowel or bladder problems
  • breathlessness
  • dry mouth
  • sexual problems

It is important to learn how stress affects you as this will help you figure out what coping techniques work best for you. It will also help you avoid resorting to unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking and comfort-eating

If you're experiencing any of the above symptoms and self-help techniques aren't working for you, make an appointment to see your GP. Your doctor may suggest other coping techniques or recommend some form of counselling.

 

Hormones
Hormones are groups of powerful chemicals that are produced by the body and have a wide range of effects.

Stress occurs when you are unable to cope with pressure.

Any type of mental pressure can cause stress. It can be brought on by a single event, a build-up of several small things or pressure you put on yourself.

Some common causes of stress include:

  • money problems
  • job worries
  • relationships
  • death of a loved one
  • family problems
  • exams

Sometimes, there are no clear causes of stress. Some people naturally feel more frustrated, anxious or depressed than others, which can cause them to feel stressed more often.

Stress hormones

Stress causes a surge of hormones in your body: mainly cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These stress hormones are released to boost your ability to deal with pressures or threats, you may have heard of this described as "fight or flight".

Once that pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels usually return to normal. However, if you are under constant stress, these hormones remain in your body causing the symptoms of stress.

Your stress

Stress can make people react in different ways. A situation that is stressful to one person may in fact be motivating to another.

If you are not sure what causes your stress, keep a diary, noting stressful episodes for two to four weeks, then review it to spot the triggers.

Things to write down:

  • Date, time and place of stressful episode
  • What were you doing?
  • Who were you with?
  • How did you feel emotionally?
  • What were you thinking?
  • What did you start doing?
  • How did you feel physically?
  • Stress rating (0 to 10 where 10 is the most stressed you could ever feel)

Use the diary to:

  • know what triggers your stress
  • know how effective you are under pressure
  • develop better coping mechanisms

Sometimes doctors will advise you to keep a stress diary to help with diagnosing your stress.

In some cases, long-term stress can lead to ill-health. If you think you are experiencing stress-related ill health, you should see your GP.

Adrenal glands
The adrenal glands are two small, triangular-shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys, high up inside the back of the abdominal wall.
Hormones
Hormones are groups of powerful chemicals that are produced by the body and have a wide range of effects.
Immune system
The immune system is the body's defence system, which helps protect it from disease, bacteria and viruses.

It is important to recognise the signs of stress early to prevent your stress from worsening and potentially causing other health problems.

There is no specific medical test for stress but your GP can usually work out if you are stressed from your symptoms.

Your GP may also ask you about your family history, your work and personal life to help find the cause of your stress.

In some cases, your GP may ask you to keep a stress diary for a few weeks to pinpoint what is triggering your stress.

Long-term stress can lead to serious complications, such as depression, anxiety and high blood pressure. Your GP may want to carry out some tests to rule out other illnesses.

These can include:

  • measuring your blood pressure
  • a questionnaire to test for depression

Some people are often unwilling to ask for help if they feel stressed.

They may be embarrassed or think that they should be able to deal with stress on their own.

However, if you are stressed, it is important to speak to someone about how you feel, particularly if it is affecting your daily life.

Speak to your GP if you are stressed and under too much pressure. Speaking to someone about your feelings may help you recognise what is causing your stress, which is a positive step.

Your GP may suggest that you try some self-help techniques, such as exercise, or they may recommend other treatments, such as a talking therapy.

Your treatment may depend on:

  • the cause of your stress
  • your symptoms
  • whether you have been diagnosed with any other conditions

If your stress is causing serious health problems, such as depression, anxiety or high blood pressure, you may need medication or further tests.

Counselling

Counselling involves talking to someone about your problems, such as what causes you to feel stressed.

A counsellor will encourage you to discuss your feelings and they can help you find solutions to your problems. They can also help you learn coping techniques.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT starts with the idea that your problems are often created by your own mindset. It is not the situation itself that is making you unhappy, but how you think about it and react to it.

CBT aims to change the way that you think about a situation, which in turn should change your behaviour.

Anger management

Stress can cause you to feel angry. Anger management is a form of counselling that helps you cope with anger and encourages you to deal with in a healthy way. It includes:

  • recognising when you get angry
  • taking time to cool down
  • reducing your general stress levels in life

Support groups

Stress management groups and classes may be run in surgeries or community centres near you. These classes help people identify the cause of their stress and develop effective coping techniques.

If you're interested in attending one of these groups, ask your GP or mental health worker for more information.

Medication

Your GP may recommend medication if your stress is causing other health problems such as depression and anxiety. Medication can offer relief in the short term but they are not a cure for stress.

There are many steps you can take to better manage future episodes of stress and make yourself less vulnerable to stress.

If you experience stress over a long period, or you have severe stress, you may develop other conditions.

These conditions can include:

  • depression: feelings of extreme sadness, despair or inadequacy that last for a long time
  • anxiety: constant feelings of unease, such as worry or fear, that affect your daily life
  • insomnia: difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • stomach ulcers (peptic ulcer)

Cardiovascular disease

If it is not treated, high blood pressure can cause many different types of cardiovascular disease (conditions that affect your heart and circulation), including:

  • stroke: a serious condition where the blood supply to the brain is interrupted
  • heart attack: a serious condition where the blood supply to the heart is blocked
  • aneurysm: a serious condition that is caused by a weakness in the blood vessel wall, which forms a bulge in the blood vessel
Inflammation
Inflammation is the body's response to infection, irritation or injury, which causes redness, swelling, pain and sometimes a feeling of heat in the affected area.
Intestines
The intestines are the part of the digestive system between the stomach and the anus that digests and absorbs food and liquid.
Stomach
The sac-like organ of the digestive system that helps digest food by churning it and mixing it with acids to break it down into smaller pieces.

There is not much you can do to prevent stress but there are many things you can do to manage stressful situations more effectively and reduce the impact of stress on your health.

The first step is to be able to identify what can trigger your stress so you can work out effective coping techniques and learn to avoid situations that tend to cause you stress.

Stress diary

Keeping a stress diary for a few weeks is an effective stress management tool as it will help you become more aware of the situations which lead you to become stressed.

Note down the date, time and place of the stressful episode, and answer the following questions:

  • What were you doing?
  • Who were you with?
  • How did you feel emotionally?
  • What were your thoughts?
  • What did you start doing?
  • How did you feel physically?

Give the episode a stress rating (0 to 10 where 10 is the most stressed you could ever be).

Use the diary to:

  • Know what triggers your stress.
  • Know how effective you are under pressure.
  • Develop better coping mechanisms.

Learn how to relax

Relaxation, such as deep breathing, can help to relieve your stress symptoms. It can help you calm down and take a step back from a stressful situation.

If you feel yourself getting stressed, try to soften those feelings by relaxing your muscles and taking deep breaths. Start by breathing in for three seconds before breathing out for a little longer.

Continue these deep breathing exercises until you feel calmer and ready to continue what you were doing. It might be better to do something else rather than continue with the stressful task.

Relaxation techniques may not get rid of the cause of your stress but you will probably feel more able to deal with it once you have released the tension in your body and cleared your thoughts.

Don't worry if you find it difficult to relax at first. It is a skill that needs to be learned and will improve with practice.

You can also relieve tension by having some time to yourself, doing whatever you enjoy, such as:

  • having a warm bath
  • reading 
  • listening to music
  • occupying yourself with a hobby
  • exercising

 

Talk to someone

Just talking to someone is helpful. Talking can work by either distracting you from your stressful thoughts or releasing some of the built-up tension by discussing it.

Stress can cloud your judgement and prevent you seeing things clearly. Talking things through with a friend or work colleague can help you find solutions to your stress and put problems into perspective.

Take control

Stress can be triggered by a problem that may on the surface seem impossible to solve. Learning how to find solutions to your problems will help you feel more in control thereby lowering your stress.

One problem-solving technique involves writing down the problem and coming up with as many possible solutions as you can. Decide on the good and bad points of each one and select the best solution.

Write down each step that you need to do as part of the solution: what will be done, how will it be done, when will it be done, who is involved and where will it take place.

Food

Food and drink can have a big impact on your mood and feelings. Sugary snacks and drinks, such as soft drinks, give your body a temporary energy boost followed by a sharp drop in energy. This "sugar crash" can make you feel tired or irritable, and unable to concentrate.

Eating at regular times and not skipping meals can make a big difference to your ability to deal with stress. This will allow your body to release a steady stream of energy throughout the day, which will improve your concentration and mood.

A healthy, balanced diet consists of food from the five main food groups:

  • protein, such as meat, fish, cheese, tofu and eggs
  • carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes
  • dairy, such as cheese, milk and yoghurts
  • fruit and vegetables (aim for at least five portions a day)
  • fats and sugars, such as nuts, avocados and sweet food

Drink

Try to reduce the amount of coffee, tea and cola that you drink. These all contain caffeine, which can drive up stress levels if you have too much.

Choose caffeine-free varieties or simply opt for water. Try to drink six to eight glasses (1.2 litres) of fluids a day, such as water or fruit juice. Avoid sugary soft drinks.

Be aware that being under stress can sometimes make you feel tempted to drink more alcohol to relax you. Alcohol, just like smoking and comfort eating, is an unhealthy coping mechanism which will not solve your problems; it will simply give you new ones.

The Department of Health recommends that:

  • Men should not drink more than 21 standard drinks a week.
  • Women should not drink more than fourteen standard drinks a week.

 

Exercise

Exercise will not make your stress disappear, but it will help to take the sting out of your anxiety and help you to take a step back from a stressful situation.

Exercise is known to:

  • release a chemical called serotonin, which makes you feel happier and less stressed
  • improve circulation and prevent conditions such as a stroke and heart attack
  • allow you to take out your frustration and anger in a constructive way

Furthermore, exercising regularly can make you better able to cope with stress by lifting your mood, building self-confidence and clearing your mind of any anxious thoughts.

Adults (19 to 64 years) should do

Aim to do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e. cycling or fast walking) every week. Examples of activities include walking, swimming and cycling. For it to be beneficial, the exercise should increase your heart rate and leave you feeling warm and slightly out of breath.For ideas about becoming and remaining avtive go getirelandactive.ie

Sleep

Bad sleep habits leading to lack of sleep can leave you feeling tired, low in energy and irritable, which can all reduce your ability to manage stress.

Most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep each night. In practice, how much sleep you need will vary from person to person but you should try to adopt a regular sleeping pattern.

 

While a lack of sleep can make stress worse, stress can also disrupt sleep. If you are stressed, you may find it difficult to get to sleep or you may wake up a few times during the night. 

Contact your GP if you are having difficulty sleeping. They may discuss your bedtime routine to see if there are any bad habits contributing your insomnia.

Your GP may recommend:

  • counselling to change any unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that are contributing to your sleep problems
  • medication to help you sleep.

Taking prescribed drugs is only recommended for the short-term treatment of insomnia.

Quit smoking

Contrary to popular belief, smoking does not help combat stress. In fact, it can make stress worse as well as damage your health.

Giving up smoking is not easy and, in the short term, may cause you to feel more stressed or annoyed. However, irritability and craving are signs that your body is trying to repair itself.Find out more about quitting smoking on www.quit.ie or call the national Smokers' Quitline on 1850 201 203.

 

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

Browse Health A-Z