What is stress?

Stress is what we feel when we are under pressure. It is the word that many people use when they are describing how the demands of their life seem to be outweighing their ability to cope. This ability to cope varies from person to person and what one person finds stressful may not be a problem for another. Stress in itself isn’t a problem or dangerous. It is a completely normal response which we all experience from time to time and is our body’s reaction to feeling under threat. In fact a certain amount of pressure can be quite helpful and motivating. However, if we have too much pressure for too long, we run the risk of a more severe stress reaction. This can be quite unpleasant in the short term, but also if stress continues and is not managed, can be really bad for our health.

What causes stress?

There is no simple answer to this question. What is stressful varies from person to person, and throughout our lifetime. There can be many sources of stress. Sometimes it can be one or two big life events or changes, and other times it can be a build-up of smaller things. Very often it may be both. As well as the things that happen to us and around us (external stress e.g. bereavement, relationship breakdown, health problems, financial difficulties, moving house, getting married, work-related issues etc.), our stress levels are also affected by what happens inside us (internal stress e.g. thoughts, behaviours, physical reactions). Although we can’t always control the external stress in our life, we can break the vicious cycle of getting more stressed by better understanding our stress and changing our response to it.

Signs and symptoms of stress

If you have some of these signs it may be you are experiencing stress. These are some of the short-terms signs but long-term health risks from stress can be more serious. For example, heart disease, high blood pressure, severe depression, stroke, migraine, severe anxiety, asthma, low resistance to infection, bowel problems, stomach problems especially ulcers, have all been linked to stress. It is therefore very important to learn ways to manage stress.


  • Worry all the time
  • Having racing thoughts that won’t switch off
  • Expect the worse
  • Think negative about everything
  • Criticise themselves and others
  • Have poor concentration and memory


  • Angry, irritable and wound up
  • Anxious and full of dread
  • Unhappy, upset and tearful
  • Lacking in interest
  • Overwhelmed and frustrated
  • Guilty and worthless

Physical sensations

  • Frequent headaches
  • Muscle tension and aches and pains
  • Churning stomach
  • Sweating
  • Blurred vision, tired eyes
  • Feeling sick, dizzy and faint
  • Bowel and bladder problems
  • Changes in breathing, fast, shallow, sometimes breathless
  • Tingling hands
  • Racing heart
  • Dry mouth
  • Feelings of tiredness and exhaustion


  • Snappy and irritable
  • Drinking or smoking more than usual
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from activities you usually enjoy
  • Avoiding people, places and situations
  • Putting things off
  • Becoming unreasonable
  • Making silly mistakes
  • Rushing around and not doing much
  • Not sleeping
  • Biting nails or grinding teeth
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