What is stress? Symptoms, causes and prevention

Modern life is filled with stressors that we as individuals have learnt to cope with. Our coping mechanisms are triggered by stress, which can be helpful to deal with day-to-day life at work, at home, and with relationships. Unfortunately, today’s fast-paced world means we are more likely to experience sustained periods of stress, making chronic stress is becoming increasingly more common. Stress is a normal part of life and some stress for short periods of time can help us to focus and motivate us.  Individuals vary in their ability to handle stress. However, beyond a certain point stress becomes unhealthy and damaging to a person’s health and wellbeing. This guide will explore stress, highlighting the key causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatments available.

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s reaction to stressors such as challenges, change, unexpected events, and new or threatening situations. This reaction can be both mental and physical, and is perfectly normal to helps us cope with various life events. In fact, a regulated amount of stress is a positive thing as it helps us remain alert, deal with situations effectively, avoid danger and stay motivated. However, an excessive amount of stress that is on-going can be damaging to both our physical and mental health.

What are the symptoms of stress?

The body’s normal reaction to stress consists of a ‘fight-or-flight’ response, which triggers physical responses including altering our breathing and heart rate. This helps us deal with stressful situations. However, stress that continues in the long-term can damage our health by causing physical and emotional symptoms. These can include the following:

Physical symptoms

  • Aches and pains
  • Chest pain
  • Sleeplessness
  • Fatigue
  • Racing heart
  • Digestive problems
  • Muscle tension
  • High blood pressure
  • Weak immune system
  • Dizziness
  • Shaking
  • Headaches

Emotional / cognitive symptoms

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Low sex drive
  • Sadness
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Racing thoughts
  • Moodiness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgement
  • Anger
  • Constant worrying
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Unfortunately, such symptoms may cause individuals to adopt unhealthy behaviours and habits. These consist of negative ways to deal with stress and can in fact worsen our situation. Some people experiencing stress that is out of control may develop the following:

  • Excessive drinking
  • Eating disorders
  • Compulsive behaviour
  • Gambling problems
  • Drug abuse
  • Smoking more than usual

What are the causes of stress?

Possible causes of stress

Stress affects us all differently, and the reasons behind stress can vary from one person to another. Similarly, we all have different thresholds when it comes to dealing with stress. However, certain life events are heavily linked with stress. These are ranked in the Holmes and Rahe Stress scale, which defines the top 10 stressful life events as:

  1. Death of a spouse
  2. Divorce
  3. Marital separation
  4. Imprisonment
  5. Death of a close family member
  6. Injury or illness
  7. Getting married
  8. Getting Fired
  9. Marital reconciliation
  10. Retirement

Aside from the above, stress can be causes by many other factors such as:

  • Difficulties in our personal lives
  • Unexpected life changes
  • Money problems
  • Poor living conditions
  • Loneliness
  • Troubled / pressure work environment
  • Being too busy

How to prevent and treat stress

You can help prevent stress from becoming overwhelming by learning stress management methods. In fact, there are various things you can include in your daily / weekly routine in order to help manage your stress levels and therefore deal with stress more effectively. These can include the following:

  • Relaxation activities: learn meditation, yoga and breathing techniques to decrease your stress levels. You can learn in classes or even online through a web-based course.
  • Practice positivity: negative self-talk can only increase our stress levels. Make sure to look towards the bright side of life and take the time to experience gratefulness for the things that are going well in your life. Keeping a daily gratitude journal may help you adopt a positive mindset.
  • Make your body your temple: eat well, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep. A healthy body helps in maintaining a healthy mind.
  • Worry less: this may be easier to say than do. However, worrying about the things you cannot control is wasted energy that can significantly increase your stress levels. Learn to let go of the small things and accept that you cannot control everything in life.
  • Maintain good friendships and relationships: feeling supported and having trusted people you can talk to can really help alleviate stress. Sometimes, simply talking about what is making you feel stressed can alleviate some of the burden. Trusted friends can also help you gain a different point of view and advice to help you cope with certain situations.
  • Learn to say ‘no’: if you are stressed because you are too busy, do not take on any additional unnecessary responsibilities. Learning to say no is also important as you need to take some time for yourself to unwind, relax, and recharge.

If stress management isn’t enough or you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and/or depressed; then you should talk to your GP. They may suggest one of the following options:

  • Counselling will allow you to talk about what is causing your stress in a safe place, and your practitioner will be able to help you learn new coping techniques.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) will help you learn to adopt a different viewpoint on stressful situations. You will learn to take a more positive, detached approach to certain situations in order to be able to deal with them in a rational, healthy manner.
  • Medication such as anti-depressants may be prescribed if you are suffering from depression or anxiety.

How much stress is too much stress?

As individuals, we have various thresholds when it comes to how much stress we can tolerate. You need to learn your own limits and listen to your mind and body in order to avoid becoming over-stressed. Know your triggers and your response mechanisms, and learn to acknowledge when you are too stressed and need to slow down / act to reduce your stress levels.

Speak to your GP if you feel overwhelmed, or depressed, or anxious or if things feel out of control.

How can a health check assess stress?

At a clinic

A health check can assess some elements associated with stress including blood pressure and heart rhythm, which are included in all of our Health Assessments.  These consist of in-depth, face-to-face health checks with a Health Assessment Specialist, which you can easily book online at one of over 2,000 mobile clinics available nationwide. You will receive a wide array of other key health markers and a detailed results report sent through the post.