How to identify signs of stress and find ways to manage it effectively

Stress is a physical or mental demand that provokes responses allowing us to meet challenges or escape from danger. The demand may be sudden, such as needing to avoid a speeding car, or long-term, such as pressures at work. Responses include both physical reactions, such as an increase in heart rate and sweating, and psychological reactions, such as an intense concentration on the source of stress.

A certain amount of stress can improve your performance in some sports and challenging physical activities, but excessive stress can be harmful to your health and interfere with your ability to cope with life. You can minimize harmful stress by identifying the types of situation that you find stressful and developing ways to avoid or limit them.

Sources of stress

Stress may result from external events or circumstances, your particular personality traits and how these affect your reaction to pressure, or a combination of both of these factors.

External events

There are three main types of external circumstance that are especially likely to give rise to stress.

Long-term problems, such as an un-happy personal relationship, debilitating illness, or unemployment, are major sources of stress for many people.

Life events that require a lot of re-adjustment, such as marriage and moving house, can be highly stressful even if you consider the change a desirable one.

An accumulation of minor everyday occurrences, such as being late for work or getting caught in a traffic jam, can cause you to reach a breaking point if you are already under a lot of strain.

Attitudes and behaviour

Some patterns of behaviour may result in stress. For example, if you suffer from low self-esteem you may doubt your ability to cope with challenges that arise in your life. You may also feel that you are not entitled to receive help from other people when you are under excessive stress. Highly competitive people may find it difficult to relax and may have a higher than usual risk of developing stress-associated disorders. People who do not express anxiety or anger even when they are under stress may suffer from accumulated tension.

Recognizing stress

You may recognize that you have been stressed only when the source of the stress is removed. However, there are early warning symptoms of excessive stress that you can learn to recognize. If you experience any of the symptoms listed below, you may need to take action to reduce your stress level.

Physical symptoms

Stress may affect your general health. You may feel tired, have problems such as tension headaches, mouth ulcers, or muscle pain, or be unusually susceptible to minor infections such as colds.

Excessive stress may also lead to or aggravate a range of disorders, such as high blood pressure (see Hypertension), peptic ulcers, atopic eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, menstrual disorders (see Menstrual, menopausal, and hormonal problems), and erectile dysfunction.

Psychological symptoms

If you feel very stressed, you may be anxious, tearful, or irritable. Even small problems may provoke an emotional response that is out of proportion to the cause. You may find it difficult to concentrate and be unable to make decisions. Your sleep patterns may be disrupted. You may lose your appetite and find that you have less energy than you used to have. Personal relationships may also suffer, especially if you become impatient or feel anxious when dealing with people. To distract yourself, you may begin to rely on alcohol, smoking, or drugs (see Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs), which may further affect your health.

Minimizing harmful stress

To avoid excessive stress and maintain good health, you should learn to identify sources of stress and try to manage your life so that you can anticipate and prepare for problems or crises.

Maintaining good health

Attempt to improve your mental health and well-being by keeping up contact with your family, maintaining friendships, and pursuing unstressful leisure activities. Exercising regularly can help to relieve physical tension (see The benefits of exercise), but you may also find it helpful to learn to relax your body consciously (see Relaxation exercises).

Identifying sources of stress

A useful way to identify sources of stress is to keep a diary and record daily events and how you have responded to them. After a few weeks, look through your diary and identify events that you found stressful. Note whether the stress made you perform better or worse and try to identify activities that may have reduced your stress level.

Anticipating problems

If you know that you will soon have to face a stressful event, prepare for it thoroughly so that you feel you have a good chance of managing it successfully. Break tasks or events down into smaller parts if they seem too big to cope with all at once. If you have several tasks to do in a limited time, list them and prioritize them. Limit the tasks that are not important or urgent in order to conserve your time and energy. If other people regularly make heavy demands on you, try to set limits.

Dealing with a crisis

Stress is a normal response to crises, and in most cases it need not be a cause for concern. However, if it leads to unmanageable symptoms, it has itself become a crisis. Seek help from your family and friends. Ask your doctor for help with the symptoms. He or she may refer you for counselling if needed.

Health Action: Relaxation Exercises

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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