Stress causes physical changes in the body designed to help you take on threats or difficulties.
You may notice that your heart pounds, your breathing quickens, your muscles tense and you start to sweat.
This is sometimes known as the 'fight or flight' response.
Once the threat or difficulty passes, these physical effects usually fade. But if you're constantly stressed, your body stays in a state of high alert and you may develop stress-related symptoms.
Symptoms of stress
Stress can affect how you feel emotionally, mentally and physically, and also how you behave.
How you may feel emotionally
- irritable and 'wound up'
- anxious or fearful
- lacking in self-esteem
How you may feel mentally
- racing thoughts
- constant worrying
- difficulty concentrating
- difficulty making decisions
How you may feel physically
- muscle tension or pain
- sleep problems
- feeling tired all the time
- eating too much or too little
How you may behave
- drinking or smoking more
- snapping at people
- avoiding things or people you are having problems with
How to tackle stress
You can't always prevent stress, but there are lots of things you can do to manage stress better. You could:
- try these 10 simple stress busters
- use these easy time-management techniques
- try mindfulness – studies have found that mindfulness can help to reduce stress and improve your mood
- use calming breathing exercises
- download some relaxation and mindfulness apps onto your phone
- listen to an anxiety control audio guide
Other things that may help:
- share your problems with family or friends
- make more time for your interests and hobbies
- take a break or holiday
- take some regular exercise and make sure you are eating healthily
- make sure you are getting enough sleep
What causes stress?
Big life changes often create stress, even happy events like having a baby or planning a wedding.
Feeling that you aren't in control of events in your life – for example, if you are diagnosed with a serious illness or you get made redundant – can also cause stress.
Stress may be related to:
- work – for example, unemployment, a high workload or retirement
- family – for example, divorce, relationship difficulties or being a carer
- housing – for example, moving house or problems with neighbours
- personal issues – for example, coping with a serious illness, coping with bereavement or financial problems
It's important to tackle the causes of stress in your life if you can. Avoiding problems rather than facing them can make things worse.
However, it's not always possible to change a stressful situation. You may need to accept there's nothing you can do about it and refocus your energies elsewhere. For example, if you're a carer, find ways to take breaks and do the things you enjoy.
When to see your doctor about stress
If you've tried self-help techniques and they aren't working, see your doctor. There are lots of other options open to you, such as guided self-help or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
You may be able to attend a stress management course.