Stress is the body's natural reaction to a threat. When we become faced with a threatening situation, the brain stimulates the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal gland. These hormones help us to respond physically to danger by causing a number of physical responses: the pupils dilate to sharpen our vision, muscles tense to prepare us for action, breathing becomes fast and shallow allowing more oxygen to reach the muscles, sweat is produced to keep the body cool, glucose is released by the liver to provide energy and the heart beats faster to pump more blood around the body. These physical changes enable us to respond to danger by either fighting or by running away. This is known as the 'fight or flight mechanism'. This primitive, life-saving reaction would have been very important to us when our main concerns were facing up to or running away from predators. However, modern-day stresses are very different and physical reactions are usually inappropriate.

In moderation, stress can be a positive thing. It increases our energy levels, enhances our performance, gives us motivation, fires us with enthusiasm and increases our efficiency. However, too much stress puts a great strain on our bodies.

Symptoms

Physical symptoms: stress can cause physical symptoms such as headaches, stiff neck and shoulders, back pain, sweaty palms, flushing, constipation, diarrhoea, sleeplessness, tiredness, butterflies in the stomach, over-eating, loss of appetite, fidgeting, a pounding heartbeat, indigestion, heartburn, panic attacks, dry mouth, rash, spots and stomach ulcers.

Emotional symptoms: stress can also cause emotional symptoms such as anxiety, forgetfulness, irritability, depression, aggression, clumsiness, confusion, restlessness, suspiciousness, tearfulness, moodiness, indecisiveness, impatience, lack of concentration, loss of sense of humour, loss of enthusiasm, feeling withdrawn and not joining in with social activities, making mistakes, boredom, feeling drained, easily distracted, lack of energy and feeling overloaded.Cortisol weakens the body's defence or immune system by preventing white blood cells responding to infection as effectively. This means that anyone suffering from stress will be more likely to develop infections such as colds and flu.

Stress is also known to trigger existing conditions, including asthma, acne, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, eczema and Raynaud's. It can trigger the development of cold sores, migraine and mouth ulcers and it can raise blood pressure which can lead to heart disease and stroke.

Causes

Most people suffer from stress at some point in their lives but some people thrive on it and others find it very difficult to cope with. Our response to stressful situations is determined by a number of factors including age, gender, education, background, genetic makeup, upbringing and personality.

The most common causes of stress often relate to work. A heavy workload, long hours, being bullied or harassed at work, commuting, management style, lack of training or supervision, worries over job security, strained working relationships and working to tight deadlines can all lead to stress at work. Other causes of stress can include financial difficulties, relationship problems, bereavement, redundancy, getting married, moving house, changing job, pregnancy, personal illness or injury or an illness in the family, job interviews, exams or caring for a new baby, children or elderly relatives.

Avoiding Stress

  • Learn how to prioritise your workload. Try to manage your time well and delegate if possible
  • Be more assertive. Say 'no' to unreasonable demands that are placed upon you
  • Take regular exercise. Exercise helps to get rid of excess adrenaline and also stimulates the production of mood-lifting chemical messengers in the brain known as endorphins
  • Set aside some time for yourself. Take up a new hobby and if you have young children, organise a babysitter and go out and do something you enjoy. Socialising with friends is very important
  • Try to take some time out to relax. Having a warm bath, listening to music or reading may help
  • Don't bottle things up, if you have a problem, talk about it to a friend or counsellor. If you have a problem at work, confront your employer
  • Keep to a well balanced diet. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and try not to binge on fatty or sugary foods. Try not to turn to smoking or drinking in order to relieve stress
  • Avoid caffeine as it can make you tense and irritable and can cause sleeplessness. Caffeine can be found in tea, coffee, drinking chocolate, cola and caffeine-containing energy drinks. Instead, try decaffeinated varieties, camomile tea, peppermint tea or hot, milky drinks
  • A change of environment can help to keep stress at bay. Going away on holiday is an obvious stress reliever for most people. If you work, take proper meal breaks and take time off when it is due. Try to avoid ending the year with lots of holiday days owed to you
  • Try not to take work home with you, keep your work and home lives separate
  • Try and get enough sleep by going to bed at a reasonable time
  • Smile
  • Try not take things personally
  • Try not to worry about things you have no control over

Treatment

  • The most important thing is to find out what is causing your stress and to try to change the situation. It may help you to write things down. By recording stressful events and how you dealt with them may enable you to take direct action
  • Exercises can help to relieve stress
    • Breathing exercise: when you are alone and will not be disturbed, sit or lie down somewhere quiet. Take a series of deep breaths by breathing in for the count of two, holding your breath slightly and then breathing out for the count of three. Repeat this for as long as you can until you feel relaxed
    • Muscle relaxing exercises: clench and relax your fists; take it out on your pillow!; close your eyes while counting to ten or try complete body relaxation by tensing the whole of your body and then relaxing one muscle at a time starting at the top of your head and working down to the tips of your toes
  • Try a relaxation technique such as aromatherapy, yoga, meditation, t'ai chi, massage, acupuncture, hypnosis or the Alexander technique. You can carry out aromatherapy at home by adding a few drops of a calming essential oil such as lavender, ylang ylang or mandarin to a warm bath
  • Severe stress can be treated with prescription medicines
    • Anti-anxiety drugs help to relieve tension and nervousness caused by stress
    • Benzodiazepines help to promote relaxation and sleep by reducing restlessness, agitation and by slowing down mental activity
    • Beta blockers can help to reduce the physical symptoms associated with anxiety, such as shaking and a pounding heartbeat. None of these medicines can cure the cause of stress, they can only be used for the short-term relief of symptoms associated with stress
  • Over-the-counter herbal remedies are also available from pharmacies. These may contain valerian, passion flower (passiflora), hops, gentian or wild lettuce so they are thought to be 'natural' and therefore safer. However, there is often little evidence that they work. Some herbal treatments contain kava-kava. Research has suggested that kava-kava may cause liver problems therefore do not take preparations containing kava-kava without asking your doctor first

When To See A Doctor

If you are finding it difficult to manage your stress levels, make an appointment to see your doctor.