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. When we say things like "this is stressful" or "I'm stressed", we might be talking about:
- Situations or evens that put pressure on us - for example, times where we have lots to do and think about, or don't have much control over what happens.
- 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.
"It's overwhelming. Sometimes you can't see beyond the thick fog of stress."
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
Is stress a mental health problem?
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.
Stress isn't a psychiatric diagnosis, but it's closely linked to your mental health in two important ways:
- Stress can cause mental health problems, and make existing problems worse. For example, if you often struggle to manage feelings of stress, you might develop a mental health problem like anxiety or depression.
- Mental health problems can cause stress. You might find coping with the day-to-day symptoms of your mental health problem, as well as potentially needing to manage medication, health care appointments or treatments, can become extra sources of stress.
This can start to feel like a vicious circle, and it might be hard to see where stress ends and your mental health problem begins.
"[When I'm stressed] I feel like I'm on the verge of a breakdown."
Why does stress affect me physically?
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 wfeel 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.
What are the signs of stress?
We all experience stress differently in different situations. Sometimes you might be able to tell right away when you're feeling under stress, but other times you might keep going without recognising the signs. Stress can affect you both emotionally and physically, and if can affect the way you behave.
"My head is tight and all my thoughts are whizzing round in different directions and I can't catch them."
How you might feel
- irritable, aggressive, impatient or wound up
- anxious, nervous or afraid
- like your thoughts are racing and you can't switch off
- unable to enjoy yourself
- uninterested in life
- like you've lost your sense of humour
- a sense of dread
- worried about your health
- neglected or lonely.
Some people who experience severe stress can sometimes have suicidal feelings. (See our pages on how to cope with suicidal feelings for more information.)
How you might behave
- finding it hard to make decisions
- constantly worrying
- avoiding situations that are troubling you
- snapping at people
- biting your nails
- picking at your skin
- unable to concentrate
- eating too much or too little
- smoking or drinking alcohol more than usual
- restless, like you can't sit still
- being tearful or crying.
How you might be physically affected
- shallow breathing or hyperventilating
- you might have a panic attack
- muscle tension
- blurred eyesight or sore eyes
- problems getting to sleep, staying asleep or having nightmares
- sexual problems, such as losing interest in sex or being unable to enjoy sex
- tired all the time
- grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw
- chest pains
- high blood pressure
- indigestion or heartburn
- constipation or diarrhoea
- feeling sick, dizzy or fainting.
Making some adjustments to the way you organise your time could help you feel more in control of any tasks you're facing, and more able to handle pressure.
- Identify your best time of day, and do the important tasks that need the most energy and concentration at that time. For example, you might be a morning person or an evening person.
- Make a list of things you have to do. Arrange them in order of importance, and try to focus on the most urgent first. Some people find creating a timetable useful so they can plan when they can spend time on each task. You may be able to push back some tasks until you're feeling less stressed. You can ask the Student Wellbeing Service for help with organising your time.
- Set smaller and more achievable targets. When you're under a lot of pressure it's easy to set yourself large targets that are often unachievable. This can make you feel more stressed and if you don't reach them, it can make you feel disappointed and frustrated. Setting smaller more achievable goals can make you feel in more control and you can see your achievements more easily.
- Vary your activities. Balance interesting tasks with more mundane ones, and stressful tasks with those you find easier or can do more calmly.
- Try not to do too much at once. If you take on too much, you might find it harder to do any individual task well. This can make you feel like you have even more pressure on you.
- Take breaks and take things slowly. It might be difficult to do this when you're stressed, but it can make you more productive.
- Ask someone if they can help. For example, you could ask a friend or family member to help with some of your daily tasks so that you have more time to spend completing your tasks that are causing you to feel stressed.
Taking steps to look after your physical health can help you to look after your mental health and reduce feelings of stress.
- Get enough sleep. Stress can often make it difficult to sleep, and can cause sleep problems. Getting enough sleep can help you feel more able to deal with difficult situations.
- Be active. Being physically active is important for both our physical and mental health. Even making small changes such as going for a regular walk outside may help you to feel less stressed.
- Eat healthily. When you're stressed, it can be tempting to skip meals or eat too much of the wrong kinds of food. But what you eat, and when you eat, can make a big difference to how well you feel. (See our pages on food and mood for more tips.)
Learning to be kinder to yourself in general can help you control the amount of pressure you feel in different situations, which can help you feel less stressed.
- Reward yourself for achievements – even small things like finishing a piece of work or making a decision. You could take a walk, read a book, treat yourself to food you enjoy, or simply tell yourself "well done".
- Get a change of scenery. You might want to go outside, go to a friend's house or go to a café for a break – even if it's just for a short time.
- Take a break or holiday. Time away from your normal routine can help you relax and feel refreshed. Even spending a day in a different place can help you feel more able to face stress.
- Resolve conflicts, if you can. Although this can sometimes be hard, speaking to a manager, colleague or family member about problems in your relationship with them can help you find ways to move forward.
- Forgive yourself when you feel you have made a mistake, or don't achieve something you hoped for. Try to remember that nobody's perfect, and putting extra pressure on yourself doesn't help.