Life is challenging and we can all suffer from stress at different times.

Stress affects us all differently, and we all have to find a way to manage it that works for us.

What is stress?

Stress is the way we react when we feel overwhelmed or threatened. It's usually when we're in a position that's beyond our control.

We might feel stressed

  • as an individual, for example if you have many responsibilities that you find difficult to manage
  • as part of a group, for example if you are facing difficult times as a family, such as bereavement of financial problems
  • as part of a community, for example if you belong to a religious group facing discrimination
  • as a member of society, for example during natural disasters or events such as the coronavirus pandemic

If you feel stressed as part of a larger group, you may all feel it in different ways. This can happen even if what causes the stress is the same.

When does stress become an issue?

Sometimes, a small amount of stress can help us complete tasks and feel more active. But stress can become a problem if it’s intense or lasts a long time. In some cases, stress can affect our physical and mental health.

You may hear some healthcare professionals refer to some types of stress as 'chronic' or 'acute'.

  • Acute stress occurs within a few minutes or a few hours of an incident. It lasts for a short time, usually for less than a few weeks, and is very intense. It can occur after an unexpected and distressing event. For example, sudden bereavement, invasion or natural disaster.
  • Chronic stress lasts for a long time or arises repeatedly. You may suffer from this type of stress if you often feel very stressed. You may also suffer from chronic stress if your daily life is difficult, for example if you’re a Carer or living in poverty.

Is stress a mental health problem?

Stress isn’t usually considered a mental health problem, but it is linked to our mental health in a number of ways.

  • Stress can cause mental health problems and it can make existing problems worse. For example, if you often feel stressed, this could lead to a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression. Or a traumatic period of stress could lead to post traumatic stress disorder.
  • Mental health problems can be stressful. You may find it difficult to cope with the symptoms of your mental health problem on a day to day basis. The management of medication, healthcare appointments or other treatments may cause added stress too.
  • You might use recreational drugs or alcohol to cope with stress. This could also affect your mental health and cause more stress.

Recognising and managing stress

It’s important to understand what’s causing you to feel stressed and then to learn tools and techniques to keep it under control so that it has less impact on your life.

What can cause stress?

Lots of things can be stressful. A big situation or event in your life may make you feel stressed. Or it could be a combination of lots of small things. This could make it harder for you to identify what makes you feel stressed, or explain it to other people.

You may feel stressed if you’re

  • facing major changes in your life
  • worried about something
  • feeling out of control over the outcome of a situation
  • overwhelmed by your responsibilities
  • short of work, activities or life change
  • facing discrimination or hatred, or being abused
  • facing uncertain times

How do I know if I’m stressed?

How stress can make you feel

If you're stressed, you might feel

  • irritable, angry, impatient or upset
  • overwhelmed
  • anxious, nervous or scared
  • disconnected
  • depressed
  • drained and sad
  • afraid
  • neglected or lonely
  • as if your mind is whirring and you can't turn it of
Physical signs of stress

The hormones our bodies produce to respond to stressful situations can have several physical effects. These could include

  • difficulty breathing
  • panic attacks
  • blurred eyesight or sore eyes
  • sleep problems
  • muscle pain and headaches
  • chest pain and high blood pressure
  • feeling unwell, dizzy or fainting
  • suddenly gaining or losing weight
  • skin rashes or itching
  • perspiration
  • changes in your menstrual cycle

If we feel very stressed and for long periods then these physical effects can get worse.

How stress might make you behave

If you feel stressed you might

  • find it difficult to make decisions
  • find you’re unable to concentrate
  • be unable to remember things, or remember things more slowly than usual
  • be worried all the time or afraid to do things
  • be picky
  • chew your nails
  • pick or scratch your skin
  • grind your teeth or clench your jaw
  • have sexual problems, such as loss of interest or pleasure in sex
  • eat too much or not enough
  • smoke, use recreational drugs or drink alcohol more often than usual
  • feel restless, unable to sit still
  • cry or feeling tearful
  • spend or shop too much
  • not do as much exercise as usual, or do too much exercise
  • distance yourself from the people around you

Advice on managing stress

Look after your wellbeing

Different things will work for different people, but here are some ideas you could try

  • Be kind to yourself. Learning to be kinder to yourself can help you feel different in different situations. Try to  take breaks during the day to do things that give you pleasure.
  • Try to make time to relax. This might feel difficult if it's impossible to prevent a stressful situation. You can get tips and ideas for exercises on our relaxation pages.
  • Try to develop your interests and hobbies. Spending time doing things that give you pleasure could help move your mind off a stressful situation. If stress makes you feel lonely then hobbies can also be a good way to meet new people.
  • Spend time in nature. This can help reduce stress and improve wellbeing. You could go for walks in a green space, look after indoor plants, or spend time with animals. Looking after your physical health.
  • Getting enough sleep, staying physically active and eating a balanced diet can make it easier to manage stress. Stress can sometimes make it difficult to take care of these things. But the smallest changes can make a big difference.

You can get more advice on supporting yourself on our wellbeing pages.

Look out for the triggers of stress

Working out what triggers stress can help you prepare for it. Even if you can't avoid these situations, being prepared for them can help.

Knowing what you can and can't change could help you work out how best to deal with stress.

Spend time thinking about potentially stressful situations such as

  • paying a bill or going to an appointment
  • moving house or taking an exam
  • being a carer or facing discrimination
  • going back to somewhere where you had a bad experience

Once you’ve figured out what causes you to feel stressed, then you can plan for how to tackle it.

Sometimes, reflecting on these things can be distressing. If remembering or talking about these experiences makes you feel worse, then stop and reach out for help.

Expand your support network

We know that having a good support network can help build resilience and make it easier to manage stress. Support from people you trust can make it easier to manage stressful situations.

This support could include:

  • Friends and family. Sometimes sharing your feelings with the people close to you can make a big difference. They might be able to help with some of the things that are stressful for you.
  • On-the-job support. For example, from your manager, human resources department, union representatives or an employee assistance plan. Your wellbeing is important and should be taken seriously by responsible employers.
  • Support at university or college. For example, from your tutors, the students' union or student services. You can get more tips on how to get student support on our pages on student life and mental health.
  • Peer support. If you're struggling to cope, talking to people with similar feelings or experiences can help. This could be face to face in a peer support group, or through an online community. You can find out more on our peer support pages.
Plan your time

Some of us may feel stressed because we have lots of things to manage in our lives. Changing the way we organise our time can help us feel more in control of things.

If you think this could help, you could:

  • Try to identify when you are feeling most active, for example in the morning or evening. If possible, do your most important tasks around that time of day, to help you focus better.
  • Draw up a list of things you have to do. Put them in order of importance. Try to focus on the most important thing first. It may be useful to create a timetable, to plan when to spend time on each task.
  • Set small practical targets. When we feel stressed, it's easy to set ourselves big or unrealistic goals. This could include trying to overcome a situation that makes us feel stressed. But this can often be more stressful and frustrating for us, if we fail to meet our targets. Setting smaller, more practical goals can help us feel more satisfied and have more control over things.
  • Vary your activities. Try to balance boring tasks with more interesting ones. And mix stressful tasks with those you find easier to do or can make more cautious.
  • Try not to do too much at once. If you try to do too much, you may find it harder to do any one task well. This could be even more stressful for you.
  • Be clear to others about what you can do. In some situations, it may not always be possible to say 'no', or tell people exactly how you feel. But if you can, tell people if what they are asking is unreasonable or unrealistic.
  • Take breaks and take one step at a time. It could be difficult to do this when you are feeling stressed. But it can help deal with things better and cope with a stressful situation.
  • Ask someone for help. For example, you could ask a friend or family member to help with some of your everyday tasks. This can give you more time to spend on any tasks that cause you stress.