What is stress, and what does it feel like?
Aug 16, 2022
Unfortunately, we’re probably all familiar with stress. Stress is the body’s natural response to feelings of pressure, worry or threats. Stress can be caused by lots of factors, including work, personal and family life. While many of us are familiar with some of the more common signs of stress and issues with mental health, the body's response to feeling stressed can differ from person to person.
When you feel stressed, both your physical and mental health can suffer. As well as the emotional signs, stress can have physical symptoms that can lead to ill health. Knowing how to prevent stress, deal with stress and practice self-care are essential parts of day to day life. Effective coping strategies can make a real difference in your day to day life.
So, what is stress, and how can you recognise the signs?
What is stress?
Stress is our reaction to feeling under pressure, or stuck in a situation we can't control. The stress reaction is also sometimes known as our fight or flight response.
Your body's reaction or response to stressful situations may affect the whole body, but it starts in the brain. When you see (or smell, or sense) a potentially stressful event, the information is sent to the part of your brain that processes emotion. This in turn is then sent on to the command centre of the brain, which sends out signals to other parts of the body.
When our fight or flight response is triggered, the body releases a sudden burst of energy for us to respond. The first part of the reaction sees the hormone epinephrine (or adrenaline) released into the bloodstream.
The second part of the stress reaction involves your pituitary gland, the brain's hypothalamus and your adrenal glands. If your brain communicates ongoing danger or threat, the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) will be released from the hypothalamus and sent to your pituitary gland, setting off the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH is then sent on to your adrenal glands, which release cortisol. Cortisol levels will drop when the danger is sensed to have passed. 1
What's the difference between acute stress and chronic stress?
Acute stress typically appears very soon after the trigger event. It lasts for a short period of time - usually no longer than a couple of weeks - and often comes after particularly stressful situations or difficult events. For example, acute stress can be triggered by a bereavement or the loss of a job.
Chronic stress is also known as long-term stress. It lasts for longer than a few weeks and often recurs again and again. Chronic stress can be caused by long-term life events - for example, dealing with a tough job or ongoing financial difficulties.2
Too much stress can cause to long-term health problems and can have a negative impact on your mental health. If you are diagnosed with chronic stress, speak to a doctor about effective stress management techniques.
What causes stress?
Unfortunately, most of us will experience stress at various times in our lives. There can be many causes of stress, and they can affect all of us differently.
Some of the common life events that can lead to stress include:
- Relationship problems - for example separation, divorce or an unhappy marriage
- Work-related stress - for example, a heavy workload, changes at your job
- Family problems
- Moving house or other big life changes
- Witnessing or being involved in a traumatic event
- Other health conditions
Sometimes, a small amount of stress can actually help us - for example with motivation for accomplishing tasks. However, if stress lasts too long or is affecting us too much, it can become a more serious problem that has a longer-term impact on both mental and physical health.
What does stress feel like?
There are lots of emotional and physical symptoms of stress, and you may not experience all of them at the same time. You may feel overwhelmed or exhausted, or you may feel angry or depressed.
It's important to remember that how the body reacts to stress can differ from person to person. Sometimes stress levels can vary, as well as the ways it shows.
Emotional symptoms of stress
Some of the emotional symptoms of stress can include:
Physical symptoms of stress
Sometimes these emotional signs can manifest as physical symptoms too, which can make you feel even worse. You can learn more about the link between stress and digestive issues on our blog. Some physical effects of stress can include:
- fast heartbeat or heart palpitations
- raised or high blood pressure 3
- digestive problems (for example diarrhoea or constipation)
- trouble sleeping
Behavioural symptoms of stress
You may find when that when you're experiencing stress, you notice some changes in behaviour. These can include:
- emotional exhaustion
- sexual problems
- feeling tearful
- being particularly indecisive or stubborn
- feeling shy or withdrawing from company
- being irritable or snapping at people
In some cases, long-term stress can also lead to digestive or gastrointestinal problems. Chronic stress can also lead to issues with sleep and memory, as well as changes to exercise and eating habits.4
What to do about stress
Everyone will experience stress and issues with mental health during their life. Sometimes, a little bit of stress can be completely normal, and potentially even helpful. However, managing stress is really important, as too much stress can lead to other overall health problems.
If you're feeling symptoms of stress or you feel overwhelmed, the first port of call should be your GP or another healthcare professional. They can diagnose stress, and can also help with managing stress and anxiety.
We constantly update our blog with advice, tips and ideas on everything from what is stress to how to manage it. You can also find ideas for stress management techniques on the NHS website.