Stress can be defined as the way you feel when you’re under abnormal pressure.

All sorts of situations can cause stress. The most common involve work, money matters and relationships with partners, children or other family members.

Stress may be caused either by major upheavals and life events such as divorce, unemployment, moving house and bereavement, or by a series of minor irritations such as feeling undervalued at work or dealing with difficult children. Sometimes there are no obvious causes.

Stressful events that are outside the range of normal human experience, for example being abused or tortured, may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some stress can be positive. Research shows that a moderate level of stress makes us perform better. It also makes us more alert and can help us perform better in situations such as job interviews or public speaking. Stressful situations can also be exhilarating and some people actually thrive on the excitement that comes with dangerous sports or other high-risk activities.

But stress is only healthy if it is short-lived. Excessive or prolonged stress can lead to illness and physical and emotional exhaustion. Taken to extremes, stress can be a killer.

The symptoms of stress include:

Physical changes

When you are stressed, your body produces more of the so-called ‘fight or flight’ chemicals which prepare your body for an emergency. Adrenaline and noradrenaline raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate and increase the rate at which you perspire. They can also reduce blood flow to your skin and reduce your stomach activity. Cortisol releases fat and sugar into your system (but also reduces the efficiency of your immune system). All these changes are our body’s way of making it easier for you to fight or run away.
Unfortunately these changes are less helpful if you are stuck in a busy office or on an overcrowded train. You can’t fight and you can’t run away. Because of this, you can’t use up the chemicals your own body has produced to protect you. Over time these chemicals and the changes they produce can seriously damage your health.

Emotional changes

When you are stressed you may experience many different feelings, including anxiety, fear, anger, frustration and depression. These feelings can feed on each other and can themselves produce physical symptoms, making you feel even worse. Extreme anxiety can cause giddiness, heart palpitations, headaches or stomach disorders. Many of these symptoms may make you feel so unwell that you then worry that you have some serious physical conditions such as heart disease or cancer – making you even more stressed.

Behavioural changes

When you are stressed you may behave differently. For example, you may become withdrawn, indecisive or inflexible. You may not be able to sleep properly. You may be irritable or tearful all the time. There may be a change in your sexual habits. Even if you were previously mild-mannered, you may suddenly become verbally or physically aggressive.