Most people suffer from stress at some point in their lives. Showing signs of stress does not mean that you are a weak person, just human like everybody else. Stress affects different people in different ways — your attitude and personality play a big part in how it affects you, and how you cope with it.
What is stress?
Stress is the description used for strain, pressure or force on a system. That system may be you. Stress can be the result of trivial annoyances like driving in heavy traffic, or a life-altering major crisis such as the death of a loved one.
Stress can be used both to refer to the event that is causing the disturbance or the effects of that event on your body. Usually when we say we are feeling stressed we are talking about the symptoms caused by our body's stress response.
Symptoms and effects of stress
Some of the symptoms and health problems that can be caused or exacerbated by high levels of ongoing stress include:
- migraine or tension-induced headaches;
- insomnia, fitful sleeping or nightmares;
- anxiety, anger or irritability;
- low, irritable or unstable mood;
- memory lapses;
- shoulder, neck or back pain;
- rapid heartbeat;
- high blood pressure;
- skin eruptions and worsening of conditions such as eczema;
- heartburn, nausea (feeling sick), diarrhoea or constipation;
- reduced libido;
- shortness of breath;
- problems with your immune system;
- heart disease; and
- chronic pain.
How stress affects your body
At the first sign of alarm, certain sensory nerves in your body are stimulated and hormones are released that automatically trigger physical reactions to stress. Your heart rate increases, blood is diverted to your muscles and brain, breathing rate increases, digestion slows down, saliva production stops (your mouth feels dry), perspiration increases and your pupils widen. You feel tense, you startle easily and your attention narrows to focus on possible threats.
This is the ‘fight or flight’ phenomenon, which makes your body tense, alert, and ready for action. After this reaction to a real or perceived threat, your body stays on alert until you feel the danger has passed. When the stressor is gone, the brain signals an ‘all clear’, and your body gradually returns to normal.
While some short-term stress is thought to be good for you, pushing you to make that extra effort in a sporting event or game, chronic or long-term stress can be harmful to your health. This kind of stress is when you feel under constant, intense pressure, or you just cannot see a way out of a terrible situation.
Dealing with stress
Dealing with stress effectively can be complicated, but usually involves:
- general measures to improve your overall wellbeing; and
- specific steps to deal with particular challenging situations.
You may also reflect on any underlying coping styles that make you more vulnerable to stress.
Stress commonly results when you feel your resources — for example, time, money or skills — are insufficient to deal with your responsibilities. Doing a ‘stress audit’, where you examine your demands and resources can be a useful first step in dealing with stress.
Problem solving techniques may help you cut some problems down to size, or you may need to work on limiting your obligations or asking for extra resources. You may need to accept that there are times in life where you simply can’t do everything that others — or more commonly you — expect.
One way to help deal with stress is to maintain a healthier mind and body. Try the following stress-buster tips.
- Exercise regularly and work off your tensions — but check with your doctor that your chosen physical activity is right for you.
- Treat yourself to sufficient relaxation time — switch off for a while, as this will help to give you a refreshed and energetic outlook on life. Learn yoga, meditation or other relaxation exercises.
- Make sure you get enough sleep.
- Maintain a balanced diet.
- Learn to accept what you cannot change but also learn to be more assertive, especially if you are one of those people who always say ‘yes’. Assertiveness training, setting clear boundaries and learning to say no can be very helpful in avoiding overload.
- Spend time doing things you like, such as seeing people whose company you enjoy, listening to music, playing sport or gardening.
- Talk about troubles: confide in a special friend or a trained professional. Another person may help you see your problem in a new light.
- Avoid the use of drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with stress.
How do I know if I need help?
You may think that you can, or should, deal with your problems yourself. But you should consider seeking help if:
- you constantly worry and have trouble concentrating;
- you feel a lot of guilt;
- your sleep, energy and motivation is poor;
- you can't be bothered doing things anymore;
- you experience several of the physical symptoms associated with stress;
- you recognise that you are turning to self-destructive behaviours for temporary relief;
- everything and everybody around you is being affected by the way you feel; or
- you feel as though there's nowhere to turn.
There are qualified professionals who can help — speak to your doctor, who can refer you to the right person. Or there are 24 hour Australian support helplines to get you through a crisis.
Last Reviewed: 13/05/2015
1. Australian Psychological Society. Understanding and managing stress (2012). https://www.psychology.org.au/Assets/Files/StressTipSheet.pdf (accessed May 2015).
2. MayoClinic.com. Stress symptoms: effects on your body and behavior (updated19 Jul 2013). http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987?pg=1 (accessed May 2015).
3. MayoClinic.com. Stress management (updated 8 Apr 2014). http://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2013/august/chronic-stress/ (accessed May 2015).
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that can affect people who have seen or been involved in a traumatic event. PTSD can disrupt the lives of people affected and their families.
Urinary incontinence (bladder leakage or bladder control problems) is when you accidently leak urine or lose control of your bladder. It becomes more common with age, but isn’t a routine part of ageing.
Headache: what makes a headache serious?
Although headaches are very common and rarely a sign of serious illness, certain symptoms should prompt you to see your doctor. Find out about different types of headaches and what makes a headache serious.
Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes chronic (ongoing) problems with generalised pain, tenderness and muscle stiffness, plus an increased response to touch or pressure.
Psoriasis causes red, scaly patches of skin that may be sore or itchy. The patches mostly affect the knees, elbows, lower back and scalp, but skin anywhere on the body can be affected.