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What is Stress?

Stress is how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. It usually happens when we are in a situation that we don't feel we can manage or control. Sometimes, a small amount of stress can help us to complete tasks and feel more energized. But stress can become a problem when it lasts for a long time or is very intense. In some cases, stress can affect our physical and mental health.

Some common signs include:

  • Headaches

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Jaw pain

  • Changes in appetite

  • Frequent mood swings

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Feeling overwhelmed


When experiencing long-term stress, your brain is exposed to increased levels of a hormone called cortisol. This exposure weakens your immune system, making it easier for you to get sick.


Stress can contribute to worsening symptoms of your mental illness. For example, in schizophrenia, it can encourage hallucinations and delusions, while in bipolar disorder, it can trigger episodes of both mania and depression. Knowing what situations cause it is the first step in coping with this very common experience.

What does it feel like to be stressed?

If we experience high levels of stress, these physical effects can get worse. This can also happen if we experience stress for a long period of time.


If you are stressed, you might feel:


  • Irritable, angry, impatient or wound up

  • Over-burdened or overwhelmed

  • Anxious, nervous or afraid

  • Like your thoughts are racing and you can't switch off

  • Unable to enjoy yourself

  • Depressed

  • Uninterested in life

  • Like you've lost your sense of humor

  • A sense of dread

  • Worried or tense

  • Neglected or lonely

  • Existing mental health problems getting worse


What causes someone to be considered stressed?

Many things can cause stress. You might feel stressed because of one big event or situation in your life. Or it might be a build-up of lots of smaller things. This might make it harder for you to identify what's making you feel stressed, or to explain it to other people.


You may experience stress if you:

  • Feel under lots of pressure

  • Face big changes in your life

  • Are worried about something

  • Don't have much or any control over the outcome of a situation

  • Have responsibilities that you find overwhelming

  • Don't have enough work, activities or change in your life

  • Experience discrimination, hate or abuse

  • Are going through a period of uncertainty


Everyone has their own threshold. Certain things that may upset you out might not even make one of your friends raise an eyebrow. Some people are affected when they experience large crowds and noisy environments, while others react to silence and free time


Is stress a mental health problem?

Stress is not normally considered a mental health problem. But it is connected to our mental health in several ways:


  • Stress can cause mental health problems. And it can make existing problems worse. For example, if you experience lots of stress, this might lead you to develop a mental health problem like anxiety or depression. Or a traumatic period of stress might lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  • Mental health problems can cause stress. You might find coping with the day-to-day symptoms of your mental health problem is stressful. You may also feel stressed about managing medication, healthcare appointments or other treatments.

  • You might use recreational drugs or alcohol to cope with stress. This could also affect your mental health, and cause further stress.


How can I Reduce Stress?

Developing a personalized approach to reducing stress can help you manage your mental health condition and improve your quality of life. Once you've learned what your triggers are, experiment with coping strategies. Some common ones include:


  • Accept your needs. Recognize what your triggers are. What situations make you feel physically and mentally agitated? Once you know this, you can avoid them when it's reasonable to, and to cope when you can't.

  • Manage your time. Prioritizing your activities can help you use your time well. Making a day-to-day schedule helps ensure you don't feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks and deadlines.

  • Practice relaxation. Deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are good ways to calm yourself. Taking a break to refocus can have benefits beyond the immediate moment.

  • Exercise daily. Schedule time to walk outside, bike or join a dance class. Whatever you do, make sure it's fun. Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body and improves your overall physical health.

  • Set aside time for yourself. Schedule something that makes you feel good. It might be reading a book, going to the movies, getting a massage or taking your dog for a walk.

  • Eat well. Eating unprocessed foods, like whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit is the foundation for a healthy body and mind. Eating well can also help stabilize your mood.

  • Get enough sleep. Symptoms of some mental health conditions, like mania in bipolar disorder, can be triggered by getting too little sleep.

  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. They don't actually reduce stress: in fact, they often worsen it. If you're struggling with substance abuse, educate yourself and get help.

  • Talk to someone. Whether to friends, family, a counselor or a support group, airing out and talking can help. 

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