Stress is something most of us will have experienced

Introduction to stress

Stress is a word which is (sadly) very commonly used today - it seems that an increasing number of people find themselves in situations which they would describe as being stressful.

However, despite being such a common problem, stress is actually quite difficult to define medically. When we speak of stress, we generally refer to stress on the mind (psychological stress) and this will be our focus in these pages.

Stress is sometimes also referred to as being ‘under pressure’. It may be described as being in a situation or position where you find it difficult to cope emotionally, mentally or psychologically.

However, the physical body can also come under stress as separately, or more commonly, physical stress arises as a result of psychological stress leading to a number of common health conditions.

Stress is a common experience

Feeling stressed is not unusual and stress will have been experienced by nearly every adult person at some point in their lives. People react and respond differently and many factors can contribute or lead to stress. These include the situation you find yourself in, differences in stress tolerance levels, personalities and past experiences.

It has to be said that stress can be positive or negative, acute (short-lived) or more longstanding.  The examples below will illustrate some forms of stress:

  • Walking on-stage at school to receive a prize
  • Going through a driving test
  • A job interview
  • The tension of wondering if you have won the lottery
  • Money worries
  • Illness or death of a loved one

It has been estimated that 70% of visits to the doctor are triggered by or related to stress:

  • Stress on the mind (psychological stress) can lead to anxiety, loss of confidence, feelings of inadequacy and other symptoms
  • The effects of psychological stress on the body can lead to physical health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart problems etc.

How our bodies respond to stress

Psychological stress arises because one finds oneself in a position we can’t cope with. The body interprets the situation as being dangerous and responds by releasing a number of hormones preparing us to ‘fight or flight’ – to fight the danger or run away from it.

Our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises and the mind becomes focused on the ‘danger’ to hand. These mechanisms were designed to help our ancestors battle mammoths and other man-eating beasts – overcoming the danger meant the family had a good meal for the next few weeks.

Although the body’s basic mechanism of responding to stress remains the same, modern-day stress is less acute (sudden) than facing mammoths but stresses are more prolonged or chronic. This in a way is more dangerous – stress is thought to be the root of many of our modern-day illnesses:

  • People in stressful jobs have a greater tendency to suffer from high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks, as well as disorders of the digestive and other systems in the body
  • Stress can lead to a number of psychological problems (see below)

For more information, follow the links to our pages on ‘What is stress?

Symptoms of stress

Stress can lead to a number of symptoms. These may be grouped into physical and non-physical symptoms.

Non-physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Feelings of low mood, anxiety or lack of self confidence
  • Worrying, negative feelings, feeling irritable
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Drinking or smoking more
  • Difficulty relaxing

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Heart pounding
  • Poor concentration
  • Digestive problems
  • Breathlessness
  • Muscle tension, pain or headaches
  • Loss of interest in sex

Follow the link for more detailed information on stress symptoms.

Treatment of stress

As stress is such a common problem, it is not surprising that there is a wide range of treatment available. The main types are:

  • Exercise and relaxation techniques
  • Counselling and support groups
  • Stress relieving medication from your doctor
  • Herbal remedies and other complementary treatments

Follow the link for more detailed information on stress treatments.

Helping yourself overcome stress

No matter what sort of treatment you are using or thinking of using, ultimately, how we cope with stress, or how we respond to stress as an individual, is very much dependent on our behaviour and habits.

If you are feeling stressed, you can help yourself in a number of ways:

  • Learning techniques to relieve stress quickly – using laughter, deep breathing and finding ways to relax your mind even in the most stressful situations
  • Taking steps to change your diet and lifestyle, such as decreasing your intake of caffeine, eating foods that improve the way your nervous system copes with stress
  • Taking charge of the stressful situation by being more assertive, more organised, as well as knowing how to relax when you can.

For more information on how you can help yourself, go to our page on stress self-help.

Further reading:
What is it?
Stress symptoms
Stress treatments
Stress self help

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