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Stress - symptoms, causes and management tips

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What exactly is stress? We look at the symptoms and causes of stress, as well as how we can learn to manage it.

Mild stress is a common reaction or feeling, but we don’t all feel stress in the same way, or in relation to the same things. And contrary to popular belief, nor is it always a negative thing. In fact, having a certain level of stress in our lives can motivate and inspire us to move ahead and perform well. However, when stress is ongoing or continues over a long period, it can not only be unpleasant to experience, but also take its toll on your physical and mental health more generally. This is something most Australians are familiar with, with 75 per cent of people agreeing that the stress in their lives is impacting their physical health.

What is stress?

Stress occurs when we feel like we don’t have the resources to cope with the demands that are being placed on us, and it can be acute or chronic.

Acute stress is the type that lasts for a short period of time and typically passes quite quickly – for example the stress we might feel around giving a speech or meeting a deadline. It’s this type of stress that can be helpful because as well as helping us to perform, it also allows us to practise and mentally prepare for future challenges.On the other hand, chronic or long-term stress hangs around and may be the result of any number of things, including ongoing pressures at work, loneliness, relationship or financial problems, or unsafe or insecure living arrangements.

Symptoms of stress

When we encounter a stressful event, the body responds by activating the nervous system. Hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol are released, causing the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to increase and muscles to tense up. At the same time, our breathing speeds up and blood sugar levels rise to provide us with instant energy. This is what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, and it signals that our body perceives danger and is getting ready to deal with it.

While these are the usual signs of acute stress, the problem is that in our modern lives, factors such as job pressures and emotional ups and downs sometimes cause us to live in a state of stress for long periods, which may have consequences for both our physical and mental health.

Physical symptoms of chronic stress may include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Digestive changes, such as becoming more prone to indigestion or diarrhoea
  • Loss of appetite or overeating (especially of ‘comfort foods’)
  • Increased use of tobacco or alcohol
  • Muscle tension (e.g. neck or backache)
  • High blood pressure
  • A weakened immune system
  • Psychological symptoms of chronic stress may include:

  • Nervous tension
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Anger and aggression
  • Poor decision making
  • Memory problems and poor concentration
  • Increased irritability
  • Tearfulness
  • Causes of stress

    Stress can be caused by a wide range of external situations, including those mentioned above, as well as your attitude towards those external situations. This means that an event that one person finds extremely stressful may not affect someone else in the same way. Similarly, everyone reacts to stress differently and has a different tolerance level. The way that stress manifests in your body depends on things like your genetic make-up, diet and exercise routine, and your physical surroundings.

    Tips for managing everyday stress

  • Emotional and practical social support is a very important aspect of stress management. Talking to someone about what you’re feeling or experiencing can help you to see things from a different perspective. This can be helpful in finding solutions that you hadn’t previously thought of. If you don’t have a family member or friend who you feel comfortable talking to or asking for help, ask your healthcare professional for a referral to a counsellor, psychologist or social worker who can help you pinpoint the events, conditions or situations that cause you stress, and devise ways of reducing the stress you experience in response.
  • Maintaining a good level of physical health can increase your resilience to stress and has a strong benefit for your mental health, too. When you are under a lot of stress, pay extra attention to your diet and exercise routine. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and sugary and fatty foods, which can lead to declining energy levels, and aim for a balanced diet to ensure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals.
  • Taking steps to get a good night’s sleep is important when you’re under pressure, with research showing that we react more strongly to stressful events when we’re tired. Sticking to the same bed and wake-up times, getting some early morning sunshine, making sure your bedroom is quiet and dark enough, and avoiding mentally stimulating activities close to bedtime can help.
  • Schedule regular periods of activities that you find relaxing. This could be anything from walking the dog to watching a funny movie or spending time with friends.
  • If you know that you are particularly susceptible to stress, consider taking up meditation or doing a course to develop new problem-solving skills. Sometimes changing the way you look at stressful situations can help to change the way you react to them. For help in these areas, ask your healthcare professional to refer you to a teacher in your area.
  • You might also like to consider taking a supplement to help support a healthy stress response in the body or to encourage a good night’s sleep.
  • Important notes

    If you are feeling under stress all or most of the time, chances are your body is feeling it too. Take time out to evaluate your situation and long-term ways to deal with it and consult your healthcare professional for supportive therapy and advice.