Stress: the signs, its impact – and how to build resilience

It can affect all of us, regardless of lifestyle, but what is stress and how can we best manage it?

Kate Lucey

Fri 22 Sep 2023 

We all feel stress from time to time. “I’m so stressed” and “this is stressing me out” are phrases we hear all too often, and with the current news cycle, the cost of living crisis and the general overwhelming reality of living in 2023, it’s easy to feel as though life is becoming more stressful by the day. Luckily there are proven, science-backed approaches we can use to reduce our daily stress levels.


What is stress?

Stress is how our bodies react when we feel threatened or under pressure, and is absolutely not exclusive to people in jobs that seem important, those with demanding caring responsibilities, or people in positions of influence. Stress can and does affect everyone, and even manifests in physical symptoms that can affect our behaviour towards ourselves and others, as well as how we feel.

Symptoms of stress can include:

  • Feeling angry and irritable.
  • Being unable to “switch off” from racing thoughts.
  • Feeling tense with worry.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headaches and muscle aches.
  • Chest pains and high blood pressure.
  • Indigestion or heartburn.
  • Constipation or diarrhoea.
  • Feeling sick, dizzy or fainting.
  • Sudden weight gain or weight loss.
  • Problems sleeping.
  • Changes to your menstrual cycle.
  • Panic attacks.

While small doses of stress can actually help us to complete tasks or meet deadlines, larger doses and long-term or constant stress can have a significant, negative effect on our health and wellbeing.

“Stress releases adrenaline and cortisol into our bodies,” says Dr Helen Hartley, associate medical director of Aviva Health. “Being stressed for a long time can result in changes to our metabolism, leading to high blood sugar, high blood pressure, inflammation, bone thinning (osteoporosis) and disrupted sleep patterns. Long term, stress can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

So how can we reduce stress in our lives and mitigate the damage that it could do to our bodies?

lady doing yoga

Stress reduction techniques

In general, there are plenty of approaches we can try in an attempt to reduce our stress. “We can protect ourselves against stress building up by practising good lifestyle habits: eating a healthy diet, being physically active, having regular sleep hours, practising deep breathing, yoga or meditating, or keeping a gratitude journal that focuses on the positives in your life,” says Hartley. It’s important to remember that while things such as alcohol and cigarettes might seem like quick relief, they’re doing us more harm than good and can actually make the impact of the stress on our mental health even worse.

“Managing work stress might involve breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. Speak to your manager to help manage expectations around delivery timelines, and for help with work prioritisation and planning,” says Hartley.

If your workload is becoming unbearable, ask your manager which task should take priority – it is their job to help to manage your workload, after all, and if you have so many tasks that they won’t be able to be completed effectively or on time, it’s up to your manager to even out the demands on your time.

“Organisations increasingly take workplace stress seriously and there is national guidance on this,” says Hartley. “Many organisations have supportive staff networks or mental health ‘first aiders’, and offer mental health support through employee assistance programmes.” If your company doesn’t currently offer this, perhaps it’s something you or your manager could suggest to your HR department.

two people talking

How to de-stress 'in the moment'

We can often feel ourselves becoming stressed during a difficult conversation or having read an email, message, or even a news article. Something as simple as pausing to take a few deep breaths can help, says Hartley, and it could be even more helpful if you’re able to remove yourself from the situation and “take a break to go for a short walk. If you’re on a video call, it can help to go off-camera to stand up, stretch, or take some deep breaths.”


When stress gets serious

As a result of experiencing long-term stress, some people can then go on to experience “burnout” – this is different from, and more intense than, being stressed, and your mood and energy levels are more depleted, says Hartley.

“The longer your stress is experienced, the greater risk there is of experiencing burnout,” she adds. “Those with less resilience to chronic stress or coping mechanisms are more at risk.

“Taking steps to protect your wellbeing and acting to manage stress when becoming aware of it will reduce the risk of burnout. You could try increasing your physical activity levels, trying self-help techniques, talking to someone, or taking up a new hobby.

“If these aren’t helping and/or friends and family express concern about your behaviours or mindset, seeking professional mental health support would be appropriate.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, the mental health charity Mind has a lot more guidance.

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