What is stress?
We all know what it’s like to feel stressed, but it’s not easy to pin down exactly what stress means. There’s no medical definition of stress, and health care professionals often disagree over whether stress is the cause of problems or the result of them. This can make it difficult for you to work out what causes your feelings of stress, or how to deal with them. But whatever your personal definition of stress is, it’s likely that you can learn to manage your stress better by:
Managing external pressures, so stressful situations don’t seem to happen to you quite so often
Developing your emotional resilience, so you’re better at coping with tough situations when they do happen and don’t feel quite so stressed
Being under pressure is a normal part of life. It can help you take action, feel more energised and get results. But if you often become overwhelmed by stress, these feelings could start to be a problem for you.
What’s it like to have stress?
You might find that your first clues about being stressed are physical signs, such as tiredness, headaches or an upset stomach. There could be many reasons for this, as when we feel stressed we often find it hard to sleep or eat well, and poor diet and lack of sleep can both affect our physical health. This in turn can make us feel more stressed emotionally.
Also, when we feel anxious, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. (This is the body’s automatic way of preparing to respond to a threat, sometimes called the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response). If you’re often stressed then you’re probably producing high levels of these hormones, which can make you feel physically unwell and could affect your health in the longer term.
People who are stressed a lot usually have many negative thoughts in all sorts of situations. Here are some of the most common thoughts that people who are stressed might have about themselves, other people, the future and the world:
Thoughts about yourself
- “I can’t handle this stress”
- “I’ve got too much to do”
- “I’m tense all the time/I can’t relax”
- “I need to find something to help me cope” (this could often be something unhelpful like increasing alcohol intake, smoking or excess eating)
Thoughts about other people
- “Why can’t I handle my stress like other people?”
- “I want to ask for help, but I shouldn’t”
Thoughts about the future
- “How will I get through this?”
- “This is going to be a disaster”
- “This stress will make me ill”
Thoughts about the world
- “Everything is overwhelming”
- “It’s all too much for me”
- “It just seems to go from one problem to the next”
It’s also common to have feelings of physical tension in your body, and to have difficulty relaxing.
What causes stress?
When we say things like “this is stressful” or “I’m stressed”, we might be talking about:
- Being under lots of pressure, either at work or in our personal life
- Facing big changes
- Worrying about something
- Not having much or any control over the outcome of a situation
- Having responsibilities that you’re finding overwhelming
- Not having enough work, activities or change in your life
- Times of uncertainty
We might also be talking about our reaction to being placed under pressure – the feelings we get when we have demands placed on us that we find difficult to cope with. This could be one big thing causing you stress, but stress can also be caused by a build-up of small pressures. This might make it harder for you to identify what’s making you feel stressed, or to explain it to other people.
The amount of stress you feel in different situations may depend on many factors such as:
- How you make sense of your situation – this might be connected to your past experiences, your self-esteem, and how your thought processes work (for example, if you tend to interpret things positively or negatively)
- How much experience you have dealing with pressure of this type
- How resilient you are when faced with stress
- The amount of pressure you’re faced with
- How much support you’re getting with your stress – from friends family, or from professionals
How common is stress?
A 2018 study of stress in the UK found that In the past year, 74% of people had felt overwhelmed or unable to cope due to their stress levels. This highlights it as a very common problem. Thankfully, there are things that you can do to manage your stress levels.