What is stress?
Stress is a natural reaction when you’re feeling under pressure or in response to various events that occur in everyday life. Although it’s very common and it can help us achieve things, too much stress can manifest in both psychological and physical reactions in the body.
Immediate symptoms can include nervousness, palpitations and sweating, and in the longer term these can develop into headaches, stomach pains and anxiety.
You can try to reduce stress by finding a good balance to your daily life. However, for more severe symptoms you may need to see a doctor or therapist for treatment.
How can lifestyle affect stress?
Feelings of stress can come on in different forms – both positive and negative. A small amount of stress or pressure can help us cope with different events. When we’re in control of a situation, stress can be seen as a positive thing. It can drive us to achieve things that we want.
Stressors that are beyond our control, or too much stress, can instead bring on a negative state. It’s important to make sure you allow time in your day to recover from these stressors or periods of high stress. This may involve being more mindful of sleep, learning to set limits for certain things or planning your day in a structured way.
Symptoms of stress
Stress can cause both physical and psychological symptoms. It’s common to have a ‘nervous stomach’ with nausea, diarrhoea or constipation. Other signs of stress can include muscle tension in the jaw joints which can lead to pain and sleep problems. There may also be unwanted emotions, such as mood swings and anxiety.
Other common physical symptoms of stress include:
An increased heart rate
Chest pain or pressure across the chest
Pain and tension in muscles and joints
Common psychological stress symptoms include:
Feelings of anxiety and depression
Sleep problems – either too much or too little
Reduced ability to concentrate
Reduced sex drive
Feelings of failure and inadequacy
Change in appetite
After a prolonged period of stress, symptoms can lead to conditions such as anxiety, depression or cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure.
What causes stress symptoms?
The causes of stress vary between people depending on things like background, experience, confidence and ability to cope with different situations. When we worry too much or make too many demands on ourselves, it can be difficult to keep control.
Stress activates a variety of physiological responses, that include nerve signals and hormones interacting with each other through our nervous systems. Together, these control vital functions like breathing, our heartbeat and metabolism. This is why when we’re stressed our heart rate and blood pressure rise.
Our bodies prepare to deal with various stresses with the so-called fight or flight response. Our stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol are released and after a few minutes or hours, the body starts to unwind to make room for other important functions. However, a great deal of energy has been used up by the body.
The body continues to run at full speed and this uses up further energy, which can lead to long-term stress, with both physical and mental problems.
Examples of events that can cause stress include work pressure, the death of a loved one, illness, divorce, changes in finances, and moving away.
Treatment for stress
Although there is no specific treatment for stress, it’s important that you speak to a GP if your levels of stress are unmanageable.
You might be advised to rest and try relaxation exercises, mindfulness or meditation. Depending on the reason for your stress, you might be advised to try certain social groups or take a break from work.
Medication can be helpful for some symptoms such as stress-related headaches or depression. You may also need support and counselling from a therapist in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Cognitive behavioural therapy encompasses changing behaviours, thought patterns and emotions to make you feel better and achieve your goals in life.
Self-help for stress
It’s important to regain control of your daily life so you can start to feel better.
Here's how you can manage stress more easily:
Try to eat regularly and have a balanced diet – aim for regular, varied and well-balanced meals and drink fluids regularly.
Make physical activity a priority – try to move for at least 30 minutes a day. This increases circulation, releases natural endorphins and makes your body stronger to combat stress.
Pay attention to your sleep – lack of sleep makes your body and brain tired. Work and study may take longer than usual when you’re stressed, and you may find it harder to concentrate. Try to have regular sleep times and unwind before bedtime, preferably without screens.
Learn to say no – Set reasonable limits and don't take on tasks that could lead to more stress. Create a better structure of what needs to be done, for example by writing a list.
Don't withdraw from your support system – It can sometimes be hard to spend time with others, but it's important not to isolate yourself. Hanging out with others can break negative stress and be a good distraction.
Make time for yourself – Treat yourself to activities that make you feel good and make it easier to unwind. These might be dancing, walking, painting, listening to music or reading books.
Slow down – Try to take your time when eating, shopping or doing other everyday things. It's easy to rush unconsciously, creating unnecessary stress for yourself and those around you.
Avoid smoking and alcohol – Alcohol and nicotine might feel relaxing at first. But when the effects wear off, it causes further stress to supply the body with more. Ultimately, this raises your blood pressure and makes you more sensitive to stress.
Stress in children
Like adults, children can be affected by stress and will react in similar ways, but they may be more vulnerable than adults. For example, young children may find it harder to express themselves and to feel like they have influence over a situation.
Causes of stress in children can range from performance anxiety at school, problems with friends, bullying, parents’ divorce, moving house and the negative impact of social media. Children can also be affected by stressful people around them, as it can be difficult to distinguish between their own feelings and those of others.
Young children often experience more physical symptoms of stress, like stomach aches. Older children may withdraw from their parents and activities.
Common signs of stress in children are:
Irritability and mood swings
Decreased desire for social activities
Change in appetite
Difficulty concentrating at school
How to help a child with stress
Maintain regular daily routines – aim for regular meals, activities and sleep.
Spend quality time together – try to be present and turn off mobile phones when picking up and dropping off at nursery and school. Children have a great desire for closeness and social interaction to feel secure and calm.
Talk to your child – ask questions about school, friends or siblings. Show that you or another trusted adult is available to chat.
Review your child's leisure activities – it’s important to be physically active and to encourage children's interests, but there also needs to be a balance between activities and rest.
When to seek medical help for stress
Speak to a GP if you’re experiencing stress that’s negatively impacting your daily life and you no longer feel you can cope.
You can turn to Livi for help with stress. A doctor will make an individual assessment based on your symptoms. If you book a digital GP appointment for your child, the child must be present during the appointment.
Seek urgent medical attention for any severe physical symptoms such as chest pain, palpitations or dizziness.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi