This leaflet is for anyone who is feeling stressed - or anyone
who knows someone who is feeling stressed.
We all feel stressed from time to time. It's part of life -
usually an understandable reaction to something happening in our
life. But, if it goes on for too long, it can be uncomfortable,
even overwhelming, and can affect your physical health.
This leaflet looks at:
- What stress is;
- The things that can make us stressed;
- How stress feels to different people - physically and
- How your body can react to stress;
- How to deal with stress.
What is stress?
Most of us will know the feeling of struggling to cope with the
demands of everyday life, an important or distressing event or a
big change in our life. We worry, get irritable with other people
and just can't relax. "Stress" is the way that our bodies and minds
react when this is happening. It includes emotional feelings,
physical symptoms and changes in how our bodies work.
What can cause stress?
Almost anything that affects your daily life, work or
relationships. Important events in your life are often stressful.
These include the death or serious illness of a loved on, divorce
or separation from a partner, changes in work circumstances or
financial problems. But we are all individual. What will stress one
person won't stress another. And even an apparently minor problem
can become stressful if it goes on for a long time.
Even events that might seem positive - such as marriage or the
arrival of a new baby - can be very stressful. Someone feeling
stressed in these situations might struggle to understand this and
perhaps feel guilty for feeling that way, but it is very
What does stress feel like?
It can feel quite different for different people.
The physical feelings include:
- feeling tired or lethargic
- having trouble sleeping
- going off food or eating more than normal
- nausea, stomach aches and changes in bowel habit
- aches and pains
Of course, many physical illnesses can produce these symptoms.
If you are worried about any symptoms, ask your GP about them.
"Fight or flight" response
Sometimes when you get suddenly stressed or anxious, you may
notice how your body is working. You breathe fast (but shallow),
notice that your heart is racing, your mouth is dry and your palms
are sweaty. These seem to be part of a "fight or flight" response
that is "built in" and which helps us to cope with dangerous
situations. They are produced by stress hormones hat the body
releases when we feel threatened. This can become a problem if it
happens too much, too often or when you are not actually under
There are also things you tend to feel and think when under
stress. You may feel:
- angry or irritable
- sad or tearful
- that your situation is hopeless or overwhelming
- unable to concentrate
- that you've lost your sense of humour
- more likely to blame ourselves or others for a situation
- unable to unwind and enjoy thing
- worried or apprehensive.
So, other people may notice that you are stressed before you
How can I cope with stress?
Recognising that you are stressed is the first step. You may be
able to make adjustments to your life or do other things to control
your feelings of stress.
- Talk to friends or family about how you are
feeling. This can be very helpful, although it can be
difficult to do. You may find that stress affects how you get on
with other people, so it's important for your family and friends to
know what you are going through. They may also be able to make
allowances for you or give you help and support.
- Break down big tasks or problems into smaller parts
that are easier to deal with. This can really reduce your
sense of being overwhelmed by a situation. You can:
- make lists of problems and what you need to do about each
- make a timetable to deal with demanding work or personal
- set yourself a number of small goals that you can reach, one by
- Look after your physical health. It's easy to
forget to do this when you feel stressed. Simple things like making
time to eat regular meals helps avoid low sugar levels caused by
skipping meals which can affect how you feel mentally as well as
- Watch your drinking and smoking. It's easy to
drink and smoke more when you feel stressed - it takes the edge off
for a short while. But, in the long run, it can stop you sleeping
properly and actually make you feel more anxious.
- Find practical help. Depending on your
situation, you may be able to get help from occupational health at
work, or from your local Citizens Advice
- Set time aside. Put some regular time aside to
do something you enjoy.
There are also a range of more structured approaches to dealing
with stress which focus on, for example, ways of changing the
unhelpful thought patterns that can sometimes emerge when under
stress, or addressing the more bodily feelings of stress. Many lend
themselves to the 'self-help' approach and can be widely accessed
online or through books or courses. Examples include:
exercise seems to make you feel better. It affects
some brain circuits linked to mood, and it may help in depression. It's good for your sleep and
can help you to feel less tired in the course of a normal day. It
can also be a good way to find a new interest and to spend time
with other people. These will all increase your sense of well-being
and your ability to cope with stress.
If you do these things, but they don't help, see your GP. He or
she might suggest a psychological treatment ('talking therapies').
This is most likely to be cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT),
although other types of therapy may be available locally.
When should I seek professional help?
You may be able to get enough support from friends, family and
work. You may need to see a health professional such as your
- if your ability to do things is being affected. You might stop
looking after yourself, take more time off sick, avoid doing things
you need to do, either for yourself or your family.
- if you feel so stressed that
you have thought that life is not worth living or have had thoughts
of harming yourself.
- If you are using alcohol or drugs to cope with the stress.
- If you have constantly felt down and hopeless and been unable
to enjoy anything, with no lifting of your mood for more than two
- If you are struggling with attacks of extreme anxiety or panic.
In these cases, it is helpful for a doctor to discuss your
symptoms and difficulties with you to see whether you have
depression or an anxiety disorder.
Cavanagh K, Strauss C, Forder L and Jones F (2014) Can
mindfulness and acceptance be learnt by self-help? A systematic
review and meta-analysis of mindfulness and acceptance-based
self-help interventions. Clin Psychol Rev
Cooney GM, Dwan K, Greig CA, Lawlor DA et al. (2013) Exercise
for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 9:CD004366.
Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D and Miller GE (2007) Psychological
stress and disease. JAMA 298(14):1685-7.
EschT, Stefano GB (2010) Endogenous reward mechanisms and their
importance in stress reduction, exercise and the brain. Arch
Med Sci 6(3):447-55.
Grossman P, Niemann L, Schmidt S and Walach H (2004)
Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A
meta-analysis. J Psychosom Res 57(1):35-43.
Hammen C (2005) Stress and Depression. Annu Rev Clin
Holmes TH and Rahe RH (1967) The Social Readjustment Rating
Scale. J Psychosom Res 11(2):213-8.
Marin MF, Lord C, Andrews J, Juster RP et al. (2011) Chronic
stress, cognitive functioning and mental health. Neurobiol
Learn Mem 96(4):583-95.
Varvogli L and Darviri C (2011) Stress Management Techniques:
evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health.
Health Sciences Journal 5(2):74-89.
Active Places: Be
Inspired: sports and fitness finder.
Anxiety UK: a user-led
mental health charity that provides direct support
services (including psychological therapies) to individuals
affected by a range of anxiety disorders. Helpline: 0844 775
Online self-help from Citizens Advice. The site
contains advice to help people solve their problems, research to
explain why they have problems.
Free debt advice: Step to change debt charity:
Helpline 0800 138 111.
Society: a not for profit organization dedicated to
people tackle stress.
Samaritans: If something's
troubling you, then get in touch with the Samaritans. They are
available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Call: 116
123 * (UK) 116 123 (ROI): email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reading Well Books on Prescription helps you manage your well-being
using self-help reading. The scheme is endorsed by health
professionals, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and is
supported by public libraries.
- This leaflet had been produced by the Royal College of
Psychiatrists' Public Engagement Editorial Board.
- Series editor: Dr Philip Timms
- Original author: Dr Daniel Whiting
- Service user and carer input: members of the Public Engagement
This leaflet reflects the best available evidence at the time
© June 2015. Due for
review: June 2018. Royal College of
This factsheet may be downloaded,
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