What is stress?

We all know what it is like to feel stressed, but it is 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 events that put pressure on us, such as times where we have lots to do and think about, or do not have much control over what happens
  • Our reaction to being placed under pressure, and the feelings we get when we have demands placed on us that we find difficult to cope with. It can be overwhelming, and cause you to be unable to see beyond the thick fog of stress

There is 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. Whatever your personal definition of stress is, it is likely that you can learn to manage your stress better by:

  • Managing external pressures, so stressful situations do not happen to you quite so often (see ‘Dealing with pressure)
  • Developing your emotional resilience, so you are better at coping with tough situations when they do happen (see ‘Emotional resilience’)

Is stress a mental health problem?

Being under pressure is a normal part of life. It can be a useful drive that helps you take action, feel more energised, and get results. However, if you are often overwhelmed by stress, stress could start to be a problem for you. Stress is not a psychiatric diagnosis, but it is closely linked to your mental health in two important ways:

  • Stress can cause mental health problems, and make existing mental health problems worse. If you often struggle to manage feelings of stress, you might develop a mental health problem such as 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, healthcare 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.

Why does stress affect me physically?

You might find that your first clues about being stressed are physical signs, like tiredness, headaches or an upset stomach.

This could be because when we feel stressed emotionally, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. This is the body’s automatic way of preparing to respond to a threat (otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight’ response). If you are often stressed then you are probably producing high levels of these hormones, which can make you feel physically unwell and could affect your health in the longer term.

“[I] can’t sleep. [I’m] always on edge. Small things make [me] angry or tearful”

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