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What is stress?

Stress is a common and normal physical response to challenging or new situations. Stress has both mental and physical aspects. When you are stressed, your body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline. This brings on physical changes in your body, which help you respond to the stressful situation.

While everyone will feel stress at times, each person’s experience will be different. Knowing what makes you stressed and how you respond to different challenges in life will help you manage stressful periods.

The body’s stress response, also called the ‘fight or flight’ response, is a helpful way your body has adapted to respond to danger. When you experience episodes of stress you need the stress hormones your body releases to keep you alert and able to face challenges.

Stress becomes a problem when it lasts a long time, or if you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with your situation. When this happens, it is time to take steps to manage your stress to ensure that you are able to function well at work and at home.

How do I know if I'm too stressed?

The key to stress management is finding the right balance between productive stress and stress that makes you feel overwhelmed and unproductive.

You can look out for physical signs of stress as well. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released by your body and cause your heart to beat faster and your breathing to quicken. Your stomach may feel uneasy, your muscles may tense up and your skin can become sensitive.

All of these are signs that your body is preparing for a ‘fight or flight’ situation. These feelings should pass soon after the stressful situation is over. If they don’t pass, it may be a sign that you are too stressed.

The point where stress is no longer productive is different for everyone, but you might look out for the following clues:

  • feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope

  • feeling ‘on edge’ or unable to stop worrying

  • changes in sleep patterns, feeling exhausted

  • changes in appetite

  • physical reactions such as headaches, muscle tension, upset stomach

  • difficulty concentrating

  • changes in mood, anger or irritability

  • withdrawal from friends and family

  • reliance on alcohol or other substances to cope

  • thoughts of self-harm or suicide

What are some common causes of stress?

Stress can be triggered by different life experiences, and everyone is stressed by different things, but common external causes of stress include:

  • major life events as a death in the family or divorce

  • family illness or health problems

  • problems at work or school, financial issues or relationship worries

Sometimes internal stress can be brought on by anxiety, depression or self-criticism. Talking negatively about yourself and feeling as though you are never living up to your own or others’ expectations can be very stressful and can strain your mental and physical health.

How can I manage my stress?

Use your strengths and skills to make a positive plan to address the stressful events in your life and how you’re reacting to stress.

Whether your stress is internal or external, relaxation techniques can help you manage stress and boost your ability to cope. There are many different techniques, and it’s important you find the ones that work for you. Examples include slow breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, meditation, yoga and exercise.  

A friend or family member can also be a great source of support, but at times you may feel you need help from a professional. Consider talking to a health professional who can work with you to identify the source of your stress and develop strategies to better manage it.

For tips on how to manage stress, go to:

How can I prevent stress?

It’s not always possible to prevent stress altogether — life can be stressful. If you remember that some stress can be positive and motivating, you can aim to find the right balance between productive stress and an unhelpful level of stress.

Making sure you have time to relax each day will also help prevent a build-up of tension in your body and your mind. Breathing exercises may also help to reduce tension.

If you're sitting or standing, place both feet flat on the ground. Whatever position you're in, place your feet roughly hip-width apart.

  • Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it.

  • Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

  • Breathe in gently and regularly. Some people find it helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5. You may not be able to reach 5 at first.

  • Then let it flow out gently, counting from 1 to 5 again, if you find this helpful.

  • Keep doing this for at least 5 minutes.

Daily exercise can have many benefits for your overall health and wellbeing, including reducing stress. Something as simple as going for a walk or bike ride can help prevent you from feeling stressed.



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