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What you need to know about stress

Illustration of a person experiencing stress

Case study by Chimezirim Ozonyiri

Stress is something all of us experience, but too much of it can have dramatic effects on our physical and mental health. Chimezirim Ozonyiri looks at why stress is necessary, how it affects us, and what we can do to keep it under control.

No matter what, there will always be some form of stress in our lives, be it positive or negative. And this is not necessarily a negative thing – stress ultimately helps the body adjust to new situations.

However, when stress becomes engrained in our day-to-day, problems can begin to emerge, particularly when it comes to our mental health. According to research from 2018 by the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of people felt so stressed that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope; 32% had experienced suicidal feelings as a result of stress; and 16% had self-harmed.

It is crucial then to understand what stress does to our bodies to protect our mental health and ensure an improved way of coping with the normal stresses of life.

What causes stress?

Causes of stress are referred to as ‘stressors’, and primarily occur in three forms:

  • Daily stressors: These are generally regarded as causes of minor stress and can lead to physiological effects, i.e. bodily, psychological, and behavioural responses throughout the day. These may appear insignificant, but they have an impact due to changes in the body's regulatory processes, such as interactions with people or traffic.

  • Major life events: These include stressors that necessitate drastic behavioural changes in a relatively short period, such as stress caused by the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss.

  • Chronic stressors: These are present continuously over a long time, such as chronic disabilities, long-term care of a sick loved one, or long-term unemployment. Chronic stressors are linked to poorer antibody responses to vaccination, slower wound healing and recovery after surgery, and antiviral deficiencies, contributing to increased vulnerability to viral infections.

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General adaptation syndrome

When faced with a physical, physiological, cognitive, or emotional stressor, the body enters a process called general adaptation syndrome (GAS). This process is vital in helping the body deal with the stress it faces.

The first stage of GAS is the alarm stage. This begins when the central nervous system is activated, causing the body's defences to mobilise. This SOS stage causes the fight-or-flight response that releases stress hormones, most notably adrenaline and noradrenaline – which raise blood pressure, heart rate, and sweat rate to prepare the body for an emergency response – and cortisol, which releases sugar and fat into the bloodstream to increase the availability of energy.

Once the initial shock caused by stress subsides, the body then enters the resistance stage, during which the body attempts to return to normal. However, if the source of stress remains, the body remains on high alert, with health markers like heart rate and blood pressure remaining high. Emotionally, this can lead to irritability, poor concentration, and snappiness.

If the body remains in the resistance stage for long enough, it will eventually enter the exhaustion stage. It is this chronic stage of stress that is most damaging, leading to a multitude of physical health issues, such as a weakened immune system, digestive problems, and heart disease, and mental health issues, like burnout, anxiety disorders or depression.

David G. Myers, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, stress can affect individuals differently, depending on their coping mechanisms and support systems. One study showed that some people may find it difficult to cope with stress and may experience negative consequences on their mental well-being, especially if stressors are too strong and persistent. In contrast, others can manage stress effectively and maintain good mental health.

I think I am stressed – what should I do?

Although mostly negative, stress can be positive when brief, as it increases our alertness and allows us to perform better in certain situations. What matters most is identifying your stressors and managing the ensuing stress.

Seeking professional help can provide the necessary support and resources to manage stress effectively and improve your mental well-being. Mental health professionals can help you identify your stressors and develop coping strategies, as well as provide therapy and medication to manage mental health conditions.

If you are unsure what your stressor is, try keeping a diary for 2 to 4 weeks and writing down stressful events, then go over it again to look for any triggers. Details to include in the diary can be the date, time, and location of a stressful event, what you were doing, who you were with, how you felt emotionally, what you started doing to ease the stress, and how you felt physically. This diary can then help figure out what is causing your stress, determine your reaction to stress, and develop better coping mechanisms. It could also help your doctor diagnose stress.

Lifestyle changes and practising self-care activities, including exercise, gardening, meditation, and hobbies, can also help, along with setting realistic goals, prioritising tasks, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.


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