Article written by
Dr Camilla Fadel
Camilla is a clinical educator for the team with experience working in Psychiatry, Coaching in the trust and Relationship Counselling for a National charity across South London.
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We all believe we know what it is, but, much like sex, we may be fooled into thinking we know more about stress than we actually do.

Wrapped in shame, we may also choose to pause before we discuss the topic further. In this blog I want to reflect on what we understand stress to be, it’s current impact, links to causation, and steps we can arm ourselves with to counter its negative effects.

What is stress?

Stress is our body’s response to pressure or threat. It’s typically triggered when we’re in a new or unexpected situation, or a situation that may not be new, but we feel that we cannot manage or control it. In short, stress is our ‘fight or flight’ response.

We can experience stress as an individual, as part of a group or community, or even on the behalf of someone else. And, the most important thing to remember is that everyone handles stress differently.

Our coping mechanisms can depend on multiple factors, like our genetics, early life events, family dynamics, personality, neurodiversity, and social and economic circumstances.

What are signs of stress?

There are many mental, physical and behavioural aspects to the experience of stress. Like I said before, everyone reacts to stress differently, but here are some common examples to consider.

You might feel:

  • Afraid
  • Anxious
  • Angry
  • Irritable
  • Sad
  • Depressed
  • Overwhelmed

Your body might react with:

  • Headaches
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Trouble breathing
  • Sweating
  • Sore muscles
  • Heart palpitations

You might behave:

  • Aggressively
  • Withdrawn
  • Tearfully
  • Freeze up or seem to mentally ‘shut off’
  • Become more prone to smoking, drinking alcohol or taking drugs irresponsibly
  • Be indecisive or inflexible
  • Experience decreased or increased libido
  • Have problems sleeping

Long-term stress can also affect your memory, eating habits and sleep quality, and studies have shown that prolonged, high levels of stress can even result in conditions like cardiovascular disease.

Stress is necessary to life

While many of us focus on complete removal of stress, we need some stress to motivate us to action, and studies point to the beneficial impact of an acute dose of cortisol.

Let me explain; when we hit the right place on the stress bell curve, we are functioning optimally, able to fight or fly in useful ways. And we do this through cortisol production in the body. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that helps to kick-start your metabolism and wake up in the morning, as well as regulate your response to stress triggers. Without cortisol, our bodies wouldn’t be able to control its use of fats, wake up, or have survived long enough to become the most successful species on Earth.

However, the quantity of stress needs to be at a sweet spot. When we have too much stress for too long we can freeze, both in real time, and in respect of all our bodies operating systems. Our digestive system slows down, our immune system weakens, and we can find ourselves trapped in our own bodies, feeling low physically and mentally.

Is stress a mental illness?

Although stress is not considered a mental health problem, it is connected to our mental health, and can be the cause of mental health issues.

Stress is associated with many other states of being, such as worry, anxiety, burnout, and post-traumatic stress disorder to name a few. Understanding the backdrops of some of these conditions can help to clarify in mind what the uglier side of stress can look like, and (later) identify different approaches to counter them.

In quick summary, here’s a run through of some common conditions related to stress::

  • Stress is how we naturally respond when we feel under pressure or threatened. This can be linked to different forms of response, e.g. our physiological response or increased cortisol – or psychological response of withdrawal/ conflict etc.

  • Worry signifies a state where thoughts are negatively impacted towards, typically, a future event/ something anticipated.

  • Although stress is not considered a mental health problem, it is connected to our mental health, and can be the cause of mental health issues.

  • Burnout is a state of feeling rundown (exhausted, depleted, distanced) from work and unable to action the same tasks / function effectively

  • Acute stress is triggered by an upsetting or unexpected event, for example, a sudden bereavement, occurring within a few minutes to a few hours of the event. It is very intense, but usually lasts less than a few weeks.

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition where an acute traumatic event results in recurrent anxiety, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks of the event and typically avoidance of aspects associated to the event.

  • Chronic stress, as opposed to acute stress which we all experience on an almost daily basis, lasts for much longer periods of time and reoccurs regularly.

In essence, all associated states come under three spectrums: thinking or feeling, functional impact and pervasiveness. Difficulty is experienced as the more pervasive, greater functional assault of stress, and larger degree of impact on thinking or feeling.

The current impact of stress in the modern world

In addition to knowing the ugly effects of stress, we know the degree and range of impact is increasing. The nation identifies itself as more stressed across decades, and this is resulting in worsening mental health and organisational and cultural impact as work settings see people step back from their roles, whether they remain at their desk or not.

Prior to the pandemic the Mental Health Foundation reported on research around stress that 74% of people had felt so stressed within the year that they were overwhelmed or unable to cope. Younger people felt these impacts more sharply.

Behavioural links were made to unhealthy eating, drinking, and smoking with 46%, 29% and 16% of respondents respectively reporting changes in these areas secondary to stress.

Psychological impacts ranged from increasingly feeling depressed (51%) or anxious (61%). Nearly a third of those that felt stressed (32%) had thoughts of suicidality at some point.

Stress was also associated with a social impact, with 37% of respondents who felt stressed reporting feeling isolated.

Through the pandemic, mental illness has overall worsened and is linked to increasing stressors.

Underlying causes of stress

Uncertainty and a lack of control can spark feelings of stress. Factors that can be linked include all those where security may be placed into question, including one’s own, the security of a loved one, health concerns, and basic needs of financial income and housing.

Social comparison and expectations also heavily drive stress. This can take different forms across groups, with the young feeling a pressure to succeed, and, for women, a pressure from society’s changing focus on what fits standardised beauty norms. The impact of social media and an ‘always on’ culture has further negative associations.

In a post-pandemic age of economic hardship, the climate crisis, rapidly advancing technology, and polarising politics, it’s easy to see why stress levels are the highest they have been in recent history.

So, what can be done to help?

Knowing the factors that contribute to high stress levels means we stand a better chance of mitigating them in as many ways as possible.

We can try to not be trapped by the behavioural pulls, and set ourselves more meaningful and compassionate goals, with less focus on expectations. It can also be helpful to separate problems and hypotheticals, and stressors or stress. Essentially, we aim our efforts towards what we can realistically control, and acknowledge the stoical truths of things that we cannot.

For everything else, there is the role of having a form of physical release. Stress in the body as a physical tension can build up, literally, in cortisol and adrenaline, and light exercise can be a brilliant way to release this.

Becoming proactive, I encourage anyone I see therapeutically, and in coaching sessions, to not only plan for stress when it is chronic, but to create a prevention plan of wellbeing and nourishment, to stop it building in the first place. This involves literally timetabling one’s own self-care time. Making time for self-care sounds simple enough, yet it’s the first thing to drop from the priorities list when life ramps up a peg.

Consider the value of letting go and saying no.

An additionally difficult thing about stress is stressing about it, and this can be such an easy trap to fall into. It is entirely common to experience some negative impacts of stress, and we can all save ourselves considerably by not adding another stress layer on top. Our natural inclination when stressed can sometimes be to do more. Notice this and instead think “what can I let go of?” For many, the feeling of overwhelm, comes from a life that is overwhelming. The solution is not to find another way to fit the extra task in, but selecting what tasks need to be dropped and delegated.

Letting go and saying no can also come in the form of boundary setting, whether that be at work, in relationships/friendships, or in the home, and it’s key to a more contented life.

Accepting tensions and using mindfulness techniques can all be additionally beneficial. There’s a great, medically reviewed article all about acceptance and commitment therapy for stress relief that I would highly recommend. .

My final piece of advice is to connect. Many people find the sense of spirituality can either turn them on or firmly off. However, others have reframed this instead as a ‘sense of connectedness’. This really is an antidote for the isolation linked to stress, and, in turn, dampens stress directly.

When we are stressed, we find it natural to withdraw, but opening up instead tells our system we can relax back again. Physical touch is calming, increasing oxytocin, the bonding love chemical found between mother and baby and romantic partners, that can zap away at cortisol. Similarly, connecting with nature can have a similar physiological response.

Whether you journal, or seek therapy, find some space to regularly identify what is hitting for you right now. Let’s talk about stress and knock any shameful layers far away, so we can use the functional sweet spot of stress and not get stuck in the sour.

References and Resources

  1. Combat Stress with Dr. Walter Busuttil (The Thinking Mind Podcast)
  2. What is stress?
  3. Every Mind Matters – NHS
  4. Stress Statistics -
  5. 5 ways to wellbeing/6 ways to wellbeing
  6. 10 Stress Busters - NHS
  7. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy article