What is stress? Signs and symptoms of condition, types, causes, and how to manage and combat stress

April is Stress Awareness Month and official figures show the problem is on the rise across the UK.

Many of us feel stressed at times - some even find it a helpful motivator - but if it is affecting your life you may want to take steps to boost your wellbeing or get professional therapy.

One in 40 British workers had work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2020/21, official figures show.

But what are your options if you feel you’re buckling under the strain? To mark Stress Awareness Month, here’s all you need to know about the signs and symptoms to look out for, as well as the steps you can take to alleviate its effects.

How common is stress?

Stress accounts for half of all work-related illness, with people working in teaching and healthcare jobs reporting the highest rates, according to figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

It estimates there were 822,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020/21, affecting around one in 40 workers.

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And the pandemic has seen work-related stress, anxiety and depression soar across Britain. Rates in the three years to March 2021 were 36% higher than in the previous three years.

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The North East saw the highest rise in rates of work-related stress, with cases up by 76% compared to the previous three-year period.

The HSE estimates that work-related stress, anxiety and depression led to between 15 and 21 million lost working days in 2019/20 alone.

In Northern Ireland there are an estimated 15,000 cases of work-related stress, anxiety and depression each year, according to the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland.

Are you suffering from stress?

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Stress is a common reaction to emotional or mental pressure. When you feel anxious or under pressure, your body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

This can help you to feel motivated and get things done, but it may also cause physical symptoms such as a faster heartbeat or sweating. Feeling stressed all the time can be a sign of an underlying problem.

Causes of stress can include pressure at work, family difficulties such as divorce, financial or health problems or significant life events such as moving house or having a baby.  Sometimes there is no obvious cause.

If you want to find out whether you could be suffering from stress, the NHS has a mood self-assessment quiz. Take the NHS quiz

Signs and symptoms of stress

According to the NHS, there are a variety of physical and mental symptoms - and it is not always easy to recognise that stress is the underlying cause.

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Physical symptoms include:

  • headaches or dizziness
  • muscle tension or pain
  • stomach problems
  • chest pain or a faster heartbeat
  • sexual problems

Mental symptoms include:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • struggling to make decisions
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • constantly worrying
  • being forgetful

Stress can also cause changes in behaviour, such as:

  • being irritable and snappy
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • eating too much or too little
  • avoiding certain places or people
  • drinking or smoking more

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Things you can do to alleviate stress

Mental health charities offer plenty of advice about how to manage stress. For example, Mind suggests that people can:

  • spend time in nature
  • look after their physical health by getting enough sleep, eating well and taking exercise
  • develop their interests and hobbies
  • try to find time to relax, for example by taking a short break

Getting NHS help for stress

If you need more support, you can contact the NHS for free talking therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy.

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People in England can refer themselves directly to an NHS programme called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT), without needing to speak to a GP first.

In Scotland, a phone service called Living Life helps people over 16 using guided self-help and cognitive behavioural therapy.

People in Wales and Northern Ireland wanting to access NHS-funded cognitive behavioural therapy should speak to their GP.

Call 999 or go to A&E straight away if you or someone you know needs immediate help, or you have seriously harmed yourself, for example by taking a drug overdose. A mental health emergency should be taken as seriously as any other medical emergency.