Stress is an umbrella term to describe how your body reacts to threats, demands or injuries. An automatic protective stress response that many people are aware of is the ‘fight or flight' reaction to stressful situations that come up suddenly. In the right setting this can be life-saving or even sharpen your mind and help you focus.
However, if your stress response is inappropriate or your body is under constant threats it can bring your nervous system into disarray and affect many aspects of your life, disrupting your health, mood and relationships. Stress can be a cause or the result of a problem, but it’s best to manage it and reduce it where possible to avoid it taking over.
Symptoms of stress can be so varied and wide-ranging. Some symptoms can be very difficult to recognise as stress-related and so makes it difficult for individuals to address them.
Physical symptoms can be headaches, migraines, sweating, tiredness, and dizziness. It can also result in chest pain, a racing heart or palpitations, and muscular tension or pain. Some people develop constipation, diarrhoea or stomach pain. Others find it causes sexual dysfunction.
It can affect your ability to concentrate or remember things. You may feel unable to deal with certain situations, causing worry and avoidance, and these can develop due to other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Some may try to compensate in different ways or practice avoidance behaviour by drinking, smoking or taking street or party drugs. The body may respond with excessive eating or under-eating, excessive sleeping or sleep disturbance and insomnia.
Relationships with others, avoiding certain people or situations causing you to feel isolated or becoming tearful, worried, and irritable.
Stress can be caused by many things for example a stressful job, a difficult relationship, financial difficulties, or grievance. Some people feel under duress by situations that are outside of their control or in times of uncertainty, like the pandemic. It can also be caused by problems with your health and by some lifestyle choices we make such as a bad diet, lack of exercise or smoking or drinking alcohol.
It is important to recognise that certain stressors are affected by your perception of the situation and how you deal with that situation. Having experience in that situation, support from others or a reduced number of other stressors at the same time will affect how you deal with the stress.
Once you have identified that you may be responding to stress, it is important to identify your triggers. This can help you consider ways to tackle it and be more prepared if crops up in future or continues to cause distress.
It is important to look after yourself as much as possible through these difficult times by resting and sleeping well, exercising regularly, staying well hydrated, eating nutritious and well-balanced meals and arming yourself with many techniques to calm yourself and relax in stressful times or situations.
The Samaritans helpline is available all day, every day, on 116 123. There are a number of NHS-approved relaxation and mindfulness apps at https://www.nhs.uk/apps-library/category/mental-health/ or online communities at https://www.nhs.uk/apps-library/category/online-community/.
Sometimes speaking to your doctor will be valuable as they may signpost you to places to get some more help, for example talking therapies for cognitive behavioural support. Some GP practices have social prescribers, who help people manage acute and chronic non-medical life stressors. If your stress causes you to feel like you want to harm yourself or others or end your life it is important to speak to a medical professional urgently. This can be done by contacting your local crisis team, your GP, 111, calling 999 for an ambulance or attending the emergency department.
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