Stress happens when we feel under high levels of pressure, and it can both cause mental health difficulties and make existing ones worse. 

We often shrug off the impacts of stress – we might say, ‘oh, I’m just stressed,’ and treat that as normal. But stress can have huge impacts on both our physical and mental health, stop us from doing the things that matter to us, and affect every arena of our lives. It’s worth taking seriously. 

When does stress become a problem? 

Feeling under pressure occasionally is a normal part of life, and it can help us to take action in situations where we need to. But stress, especially when it goes on for a long time or comes from many directions at once, can become overwhelming, and lead to us feeling frozen, panicked, or unable to move forward. 

When this happens, it’s important to try to address it as soon as you can. Stress which is ignored or pushed aside can build up fast, negatively impact your physical and mental health, and ultimately compound. Stress often makes us feel ill, overwhelmed and exhausted, and makes it harder to get through regular daily activities, which then can also build up and increase the stress we feel.  

It can feel difficult to break out of this stress spiral, but the earlier we are able to recognise and address stress, the easier it becomes to escape the cycle. Through understanding the warning signs of stress, and how it happens, we can be prepared to handle it. 

What causes stress? 

Stress comes about from being under high pressure, either ‘acutely’ – from a traumatic event, loss, or sudden change– or ‘chronically’ – from a lot of small or different pressures building up over time, which can make it hard to pinpoint exactly what is making you feel stressed. 

Acute stress can often happen when: 

  • Big changes happen in your life, or are about to happen 
  • You lose someone or something important to you 
  • Something traumatic or unexpected happens 
  • There is a sudden increase in pressure on you 

Chronic stress, which we may not notice building up, often also comes from situations where we: 

  • Don’t feel that we have much or any control over what is happening or the outcome of a situation 
  • Feel under a lot of pressure (from ourselves or from others) 
  • Have responsibilities which feel overwhelming 
  • Are experiencing a lot of uncertainty, instability or worry 
  • Have too little structure, activity, or social contact 
  • Experience discrimination, abuse, or bullying 
  • Don’t feel able to move forward or see a path to change 
  • Have less support or ability to share our feelings than we need 

These situations can come from any number of places in our lives, or multiple places at once. Some examples of things that can build stress might include: 

Personal 

Things in our personal lives – our health, emotional life, and relationship to ourselves – can be major sources of stress. Some examples might be processing and managing health issues, the build up of everyday tasks, major life changes like pregnancy or parenthood, changes in your lifestyle (especially things like making a major move, leaving a long-term living situation, or going into recovery), loss or grief, or coping with the aftermath of traumatic or distressing events. 

Relationships 

We might feel responsible for other people’s wellbeing, be it children, family members, or friends. Worrying about people when things aren’t going well, feeling like you can’t put things down because others are relying on you, or not knowing how best to help can all add to stress. 

Loss can also be a huge factor in stress. Managing the complicated emotions around death, critical illness, divorce, breakups or drifting apart can be hard. On top of your regular responsibilities it can all feel too much. Even if only temporarily, 

Employment or education 

Work and study are often big sources of stress – they can be things which are very central in our lives and which we may feel we have very little control over. There can be a lot of pressure in these environments to accept stress, and to allow things that happen at work or school to spill over into other areas of our lives. 

We’re particularly likely to be stressed in times of change – switching jobs, classes or managers, starting something new, or dealing with changes to how we work or study. Looming deadlines, a high workload, or a lot of pressure to perform can also affect us a lot. You may also find yourself struggling to balance work/school with the rest of your life, which might be made harder by long or irregular hours, lack of flexibility when you need it, an expectation of taking work home, or a long commute. 

Money and stability 

Being financially unstable or worrying about money can create a huge amount of stress. Living in poverty, or dealing with large amounts of debt, can keep worry constantly chipping away at you. You may be constantly running budgets in the back of your mind, or feeling debts as an almost physical weight.  

Similarly, if you’re in an unstable housing situation – whether you’re homeless, at risk of homelessness, or the place you’re living is unpleasant to be in – that, too, can create a constant strain. 

Even if things aren’t that bad, you might find yourself worrying about money, work, or housing – especially if you’ve dealt with financial or housing instability in the past.

How do I recognise stress?

Sometimes, it’s really obvious when we’re under stress, but often we can go days, months or even years without noticing how much stress is affecting us. Addressing stress is much more manageable when we catch the early warning signs. 

Everybody will react to stress differently, and it can be really helpful to look back on past times in your life where you’ve felt overwhelmed or under a lot of pressure, and ask yourself ‘what does stress look like for me?’ 

Sometimes it can also be useful to talk to other people you trust. When we’re under stress, we may not recognise it immediately, but those around us may have picked up on changes in our behaviour or emotional state. 

Here are some examples of what you can look for: 

Physical changes

You might first be aware that you feel stressed through physical signs like: 

  • feeling tired 
  • headaches or migraines 
  • nausea, stomach pain or digestive problems 
  • blurry or unfocused eyesight 

You might also notice symptoms of anxiety, like: 

  • hyperventilating 
  • feeling dizzy 
  • shaking or trembling 
  • tension (e.g. clenching your jaw/grinding your teeth) 
  • chest pain or a racing heart rate.  

You might find you’re experiencing these where you haven’t before, or getting them much more frequently. 

Over time, you might notice longer-term changes. These can take many forms, but often include some of: 

  • Low energy, fatigue and tiredness 
  • Sleeping uncontrollably or struggling with insomnia 
  • Eating less or more, changing the sorts of food you eat, and missing meals or eating at irregular times 
  • Gaining or losing a noticeable amount of weight 
  • Aches and pains (especially in places like your jaw and shoulders where you hold tension) 
  • Rashes, acne, or other skin issues 
  • Changes to your menstrual cycle 
  • Persistent gut issues (diarrhoea, constipation, acid reflux, indigestion, etc) 

Over time, physical symptoms can build up. If you have other chronic health conditions, symptoms may worsen. You may also get more prone to getting sick, as exhaustion affects your immune system.

Emotional changes 

When you’re stressed, it can make you much more reactive and prone to sudden shifts in mood, or it might make you feel numb or slow. Some signs of stress might be: 

  • Feeling very tearful, overwhelmed or easily upset by small things 
  • Feeling anxious, worried, or having a constant sense of dread 
  • Feeling uninterested in what’s happening around you, or unable to enjoy things that normally make you happy 
  • Feeling worthless, incapable, or hopeless 
  • Being irritable, snapping at people around you, or having frequent bursts of anger or rage which feel disproportionate 
  • Not wanting to speak to people or be around them for long periods of time, when you would normally enjoy their company 
  • Struggling to ‘switch off’ or avoid thinking about the things that are causing stress, even when you’re trying to relax 
  • Thoughts which feel like they’re racing out of control 

If you have existing mental health issues, they may become more intrusive – stress can increase the frequency of everything from anxiety to hallucinations to dissociative episodes, and can make us feel things much more intensely. 

Behaviour

Some common signs of stress to look out for include: 

  • Smoking, drinking, or using recreational drugs more often or intensely, or experiencing a strong desire to return to substances you’ve stopped using. 
  • Finding it hard to make decisions, or making more impulsive decisions 
  • Struggling to concentrate or hold onto thoughts; being distracted or slow to respond when people speak to you 
  • Feeling restless, talking or moving fast, and being unable to sit still or settle 
  • Struggling to remember what happened when or to plan ahead in detail, losing track of time, and getting things out of order 
  • Displacement activities like picking, scratching, or chewing your skin, pulling out your hair, biting your nails, or tapping/hitting parts of your body 
  • Compulsive behaviour (like binge eating, overexercising, shopping or gambling) 
  • Trouble either feeling interested in sex, or with sexual function 
  • Difficulty talking to people or communicating your feelings – you might find yourself being very short with people you usually are close to, or talking fast and without focus 

Why is this happening? 

When we’re in high-stress situations, we go into a very activated state. We’re often trying to hold a lot of information and ideas at once, having very little rest or downtime, and working very hard to try and find a way forwards. Stressful situations can activate our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses, kicking off a wide range of physical and psychological reactions. 

Even when it might not feel like we’re doing much, just being in a high-stress state is using up a lot of energy and mental bandwidth, so we might have less resource available to do the things that matter to us, keep us well, and think long-term. 

What do I do about it? 

Often, stress is a sign that something needs to change in our lives, or that we need to give ourselves more space to rest or process our feelings. But when we’re already stretched thin, that can be hard to do, so often we have to deal with the day-to-day experience of stress first, or find ways to avoid high stress situations. 

Find some tips on how to deal with stress in our companion resource here, and, if you need to reach out, join one of our Listening Spaces