On this page

What is stress?

Woman relaxing reading a book
On this page

Each April, Stress Awareness Month focusses on increasing public awareness about the causes and cures of stress. According to the Mental health foundation, 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the past year, they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Stress can play a significant factor in mental health problems as well as physical health problems, so this Stress Awareness Month we’re looking at what exactly is stress and how can we be more aware?

So, what is stress?

I feel stressed” is a sentence we’ve all probably used at one point or another, but what does it mean? Stress is our body’s physical response to pressure. When we’re stressed the body switches to ‘flight or fight’ mode, releasing hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine; preparing the body for physical action. This causes reactions in the body such as blood being diverted to our muscles and shutting down unnecessary functions like digestion.

Fight or flight

Prehistorically, the release of hormones like adrenaline would have given a caveman a burst of energy and helped him fight or run away from any dangers. Nowadays, the ‘fight or flight’ mode can help us react quickly to dangerous situations like slamming on the breaks of our car to avoid a hazard. It can help us meet the demands of modern life and motivate us to achieve things day to day, like delivering a speech at work.

The issue is when the body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations; with blood flow going to our muscles, this can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’ which can be unhelpful at work or home. Prolonged stress can lead to feelings of physical and mental exhaustion.

Signs and symptoms of stress

According to the NHS, if you are stressed you may:

  • Feel overwhelmed
  • Have racing thoughts or find it difficult to concentrate
  • Feel worried, anxious or scared
  • Feel a lack of self-confidence
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Feel tired all of the time
  • Feel like you want to avoid your problems
  • Find that you’re eating more or less than usual
  • Find that you’re drinking or smoking more than usual

Stress affects everyone differently and the causes can differ from person to person. Some of these causes could be difficulties in our personal lives and relationships, life changes like:

  • moving to a new house
  • having a baby
  • money difficulties
  • health issues
  • childcare
  • your work environment
  • feeling lonely and unsupported

The NHS has categorised the following physical symptoms of stress:

  • Headaches or dizziness
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Stomach problems
  • Chest pain or a faster heartbeat
  • Sexual problems

Stress awareness

Being aware of how challenges and changes in life can lead to stress or be affecting our mental health might make it easier to understand when we or someone else is struggling:

Helping yourself when you're stressed

Recognise when stress is a problem

Draw a connection between any physical or emotional signs and the pressures you’re faced with. Pay attention to physical symptoms like tense muscles, tiredness or headaches. Think about what could be causing your stress.

Look at your lifestyle

Have you got too much on your to-do list at once? Try re-prioritising things you need to do and reorganise your life so you’re not having to do everything at once.

Eat healthily

A healthy diet will help your mental wellbeing, Read our healthy eating guide here for tips on a healthy diet.

Smoking and drinking

Be aware of how much you’re drinking and/or smoking, both alcohol and caffeine can lead to increased feelings of anxiety. Use our in-store stop smoking services for further help on quitting.

Stop smoking tool

A good night's sleep

Sleeping well is important, to help you get a good night’s sleep try to limit the amount of caffeine you have during the day, cut down on blue light and screen time before bed and write a to-do list for the next day to help you prioritise.  We’ve got a guide on how to get a good night’s sleep here.

Help available

If you're feeling stressed, it's ok to ask for help and to admit you're struggling. There are many resources, lots of help and people out there who want to support you if you’re feeling stressed.

Try our top three techniques for stress relief and yoga for stress for starters. You could try talking to a trusted friend or family member about how you feel, or call the Samaritans on 116123 if you need someone to talk to. Try searching for relaxation or mindfulness apps, you can find the NHS recommended ones here.

It's ok to ask for help - speak to your GP if you’re struggling to cope with stress and/or the things you’re trying aren’t helping.