What is stress?
Stress is a common and normal physical response to challenging or new situations. Stress has both mental and physical aspects. When you are stressed, your body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline. This brings on physical changes in your body, which help you respond to the stressful situation.
While everyone will feel stress at times, each person’s experience will be different. Knowing what makes you stressed and how you respond to different challenges in life will help you manage stressful periods.
The body’s stress response, also called the ‘fight or flight’ response, is a helpful way your body has adapted to respond to danger. When you experience episodes of stress you need the stress hormones your body releases to keep you alert and able to face challenges.
Stress becomes a problem when it lasts a long time, or if you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with your situation. When this happens, it is time to take steps to manage your stress to ensure that you are able to function well at work and at home.
How do I know if I'm too stressed?
The key to stress management is finding the right balance between productive stress and stress that makes you feel overwhelmed and unproductive.
You can look out for physical signs of stress as well. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released by your body and cause your heart to beat faster and your breathing to quicken. Your stomach may feel uneasy, your muscles may tense up and your skin can become sensitive.
All of these are signs that your body is preparing for a ‘fight or flight’ situation. These feelings should pass soon after the stressful situation is over. If they don’t pass, it may be a sign that you are too stressed.
The point where stress is no longer productive is different for everyone, but you might look out for the following clues:
feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope
feeling ‘on edge’ or unable to stop worrying
changes in sleep patterns, feeling exhausted
physical reactions such as headaches, muscle tension, upset stomach
withdrawal from friends and family
reliance on alcohol or other substances to cope
What are some common causes of stress?
Stress can be triggered by different life experiences, and everyone is stressed by different things, but common external causes of stress include:
family illness or health problems
Sometimes internal stress can be brought on by anxiety, depression or self-criticism. Talking negatively about yourself and feeling as though you are never living up to your own or others’ expectations can be very stressful and can strain your mental and physical health.
How can I manage my stress?
Use your strengths and skills to make a positive plan to address the stressful events in your life and how you’re reacting to stress.
Whether your stress is internal or external, relaxation techniques can help you manage stress and boost your ability to cope. There are many different techniques, and it’s important you find the ones that work for you. Examples include slow breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and exercise.
Read more here on relaxation techniques for stress relief.
A friend or family member can also be a great source of support, but at times you may feel you need help from a professional. Consider talking to a counsellor, psychologist or social worker who can work with you to identify the source of your stress and develop strategies to better manage it.
Psychologists and other therapists use a range of approaches to help manage stress and anxiety. One evidence-based approach is a technique known as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) which is based on the idea that how you think and act affects how you feel.
When should I see my doctor?
If you or someone close to you is experiencing an emergency, or is at risk of immediate harm, call triple zero (000). To talk to someone now, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
If you have tried relaxation techniques and reaching out to someone you trust, but still feel overwhelmed, you can check in with your doctor or speak with a mental health professional.
Stress is not itself a diagnosis but rather a clue that something else is going on. Chronic stress could be a sign of depression, anxiety or a symptom of another mental health condition. GPs and psychologists are trained to know how to recognise when stress is a sign that you need extra support, so don’t hesitate to reach out for advice.
How can I prevent stress?
It’s not always possible to prevent stress altogether — life can be stressful. If you remember that some stress can be positive and motivating, you can aim to find the right balance between productive stress and an unhelpful level of stress.
Making sure you have time to relax each day will also help prevent a build-up of tension in your body and your mind.
Daily exercise can have many benefits for your overall health and wellbeing, including reducing stress. Something as simple as going for a walk or taking part in a team sport can also improve your mental health and help prevent you from feeling stressed.
Spend time learning what triggers your stress and try to understand why this is. Structured problem solving is another form of psychological therapy that can help prevent your stress from escalating as you identify ways to solve the problems that trigger it.
What happens if I don't manage my stress?
It’s important not to leave your stress unmanaged because chronic stress may cause long-term health problems, including these physical symptoms:
During stressful periods, rapid breathing sends more oxygen around the body. If you have an existing respiratory condition like asthma, this can make it harder for you to breathe. Faster breathing can also lead to hyperventilation and for some people, panic attacks.
Stress causes your heart to beat faster than usual so it can pump more blood to your body organs and muscles. In the short term, this helps your body respond to stress, but it also raises your blood pressure. If you are experiencing long or frequent episodes of stress, high blood pressure can lead to heart problems.
When you are stressed your body produces more glucose to give you extra energy. If this happens frequently it can put you at a greater risk of type 2 diabetes. The hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released by your body in response to stress, and can also give you an upset stomach or reflux when too much acid is produced.
Fertility and sexuality
Living with chronic stress leads to your mind and body feeling exhausted. This may reduce your desire for sex and can lead to fertility problems.
Your muscles tense up from adrenaline in preparation for a ‘fight or flight’ response and to protect your body from a potential injury. After a stressful event, your muscles relax and your blood pressure returns to normal, but when stress becomes chronic your muscles may not have the chance to relax. This can cause back, neck and shoulder pain which can lead to headaches and body aches.
When you are stressed, your body’s immune system is stimulated to help heal wounds or injuries. If you have long periods of stress, your immune system becomes fatigued, making you more vulnerable to infection and illness and to taking longer to recover.
Skin and hair
Stress hormones increase oil production which will make your skin more sensitive and oily and over time may cause acne or hair loss.
Resources and support
In an emergency call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
For crisis support call Lifeline 13 11 14.
For Beyond Blue’s support service call 1300 22 4636.
Lifeline (Stress), Hormones Australia (Adrenal gland), ReachOut Australia (Effect of stress on the body), ReachOut Australia (Stress), Beyond Blue (Anxiety), Headspace (Meditation), Beyond Blue (Staying well), Beyond Blue (Who can assist?), Black Dog Institute (Resources & Support - Anxiety Treatment), RACGP (Chronic Stress), Health NSW - WayAhead (Recognising and managing stress), Beyond Blue (My inner critic), ReachOut Australia (Mindfulness – is it for you)