Stress manifests itself differently for each one of us.
It is perfectly normal to feel pressure from time to time, but it is important not let this tip over into full-blown stress.
Sometimes it is hard to know that you are stressed when you are in the thick of it, but its negative effects can impact on so many areas of your life and health, that it is worth keeping an eye on your own stress levels and also those around you.
What exactly is stress?
There is no medical definition of stress, and whether it is the cause, or the result of problems is often not clear.1
This makes stress management quite challenging.
What we do know, is that when your body is under stress, your body releases hormones that raise your heart rate and blood pressure, preparing your body for “fight or flight”.
This was once really important for our survival and critical to keeping our hunter-gatherer ancestors alive.
But in our modern world, it could now be damaging our health.2
Causes: What makes us stressed?
According to the NHS, the most common causes of stress include work, finances, family or health.3
Stress at work
Stress at work, or work related stress is very serious and should not be underestimated, as it is a risk factor for depression.4
When it comes to family issues, being a carer or going through relationship difficulties are usually the biggest factors.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after a traumatic life event, such a car accident, childbirth, serious health problems, or if you have been attacked.
The symptoms can be similar to those described above, but it might be harder to find the root cause, as PTSD can happen weeks or years after the original event.5
Less well-known causes of stress
As well as the well-known causes of stress, there are many other “hidden” causes that scientists have discovered over the years.
The American Institute of Stress has identified five key hidden causes.6
PTSD can occur in adulthood if a person experienced a difficult childhood, or even a stressful time in the womb as they were developing.
If you are experiencing stress symptoms, including anxiety or panic attacks, but do not know the cause, it might be worth exploring your childhood with a therapist.
Lack of sleep
Yes stress can disturb your sleep, but conversely, a lack of sleep can also make you more stressed out.
If your stress has only started after a period of poor sleep, improving your sleep health might well help sort out your stress levels.
Type A personality
If you are a competitive overachiever who has a sense of never being good enough, you might well have a “Type A” personality.
These folks tend to run on high alert for perceived threats, which means their bodies are pumping with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
Perceived lack of socioeconomic status
If you feel dissatisfied with your life, you might well get stressed more easily than people who are able to accept their lot.
This is especially true if you have poor social support networks.
Perceived lack of control
This is especially relevant in a work setting, where you might have a lot of responsibility, but little control over how the organisation is run.
Or if you develop a sudden health problem that leads to you feeling like your life is in the hands of health professionals.
- Common causes of stress include work, PTSD, poor health, a lack of sleep, lack of control and being a Type A personality
Symptoms: What are the signs of stress?
As we have seen, stress shows up differently all the time.
The changes observed in a stressed person can be cognitive, emotional, physical or behavioural, or a combination of all of these.
Here are some examples:7
Cognitive signs of stress
- Memory problems
- Poor judgement
- Inability to concentrate
- ‘Brain fog’
- Starting many tasks but achieving little
Emotional signs of stress
- Fatalistic thinking
- Feeling overwhelmed
Physical signs of stress
- Chest pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Aches and pains
- Frequent colds
- Skin complaints
- High blood pressure
- An aching jaw from clenching your teeth while you work, or grinding them at night.
Behavioural signs of stress
- Increase intake in alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine to relax
- Isolating yourself from others
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Loss of sense of humour
Could you be stressed without realising?
With eight out of 10 Britons feeling stressed during a typical week and one in ten stressed all the time (sound familiar?), you think we’d all know the signs.
But the body deals with pressure in unique ways – here are seven signs you need to take the bull by the horns and give your stress levels a makeover:
Stress leads to a general tension throughout the body as our fight or flight response kicks in. Clenching your teeth when concentrating, or teeth grinding in your sleep are common stress symptoms, along with earache and headaches.
If left unchecked, this can lead to the lower jaw seizing up (OUCH!) and in the worst cases, even lockjaw.8
QUICK FIX: Protect teeth with a mouthguard and reduce swelling with anti-inflammatories.
When you’re threatened (as it feels when stressed out), your body diverts blood away from the gut to the limbs for that fight or flight reaction.
This causes digestive enzyme levels to drop and the stomach works less effectively.
Your gut can even go into spasm, causing pain and problems with your bowels – if left unchecked, it could turn into IBS or even intolerance to certain foods.9
QUICK FIX: Avoiding foods that irritate you is the only truly effective way of getting relief, although acupuncture may help to ease symptoms.
B vitamins are vital for the nervous system – we need them to release energy from our food, so we use them up during the energy-rich stress response.
Sores at the corners of the lips are a sign that vitamin B is low – in particular B2, B3 and B12.
Vitamin B12 helps regulate the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain, and when this drops, so does our mood and motivation.10
Vitamin B is also involved in melatonin production, which affects sleep, so a deficiency could lead to even HIGHER stress levels.
QUICK FIX: Load up on vitamin B – carrots, eggs, peas, spinach, sunflower seeds, walnuts, avocados, bananas, beans, broccoli and brown rice are all good sources. NOM!
The stress hormone cortisol releases glucose into the blood, again to help with fight or flight.
However, excessive levels of this, with no need for it, means that glucose ends up being stored as fat – usually around your waist (cue muffin top!) – where cortisol receptors are abundant.11
So if you’re struggling with your skinny jeans, take note…
QUICK FIX: While we’d all love to lose belly fat, you can’t target fat in specific areas, so you’ll need to adopt a general approach to healthier eating. These exercises can help tone up the belly area: crunches, Russian twists, side crunches, bicycle crunches and the rolling plank.
Adrenaline causes the pupils to dilate, letting more light in to help spot danger. This can be harmful if what you’re ACTUALLY looking at is a bright computer screen.12
QUICK FIX: If you work with a computer, take regular screen breaks – ideally a 5-10 minute rest every hour (yeah, right). Back in the real world, if you can’t spare that much time, glance up from your screen and focus on something in the distance. Adjusting the brightness of your screen will help.
Stress can leave you a lot less productive than usual – it disrupts sleep, so you’re waking up already running on empty and reaching for the sweet snacks and caffeine (sugar crash alert!).13
QUICK FIX: Try liquorice root or rhodiola rosea
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps to protect the cells from oxidative stress and is needed to make collagen.
Without it, body tissues break down – symptoms of deficiency include easy bruising and bleeding gums when you brush your teeth.14
Other markers you’re lacking in vit C include regularly getting infections and colds and difficulty getting better from illness. And yes, you’ve guessed it, the stress response uses up vitamin C.
QUICK FIX: Increase levels by eating a diet rich in berries, citrus fruits, green veg, asparagus, avocados, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, kale, mangos, strawberries and tomatoes.
- The negative effects of stress can have cognitive, physical and mental manifestations
- Cognitive symptoms include brain fog, poor memory and poor decision making
- Physical symptoms include chest pain, skin complaints and digestive problems
- Emotional symptoms include feelings of panic, depression and irritability
- Behavioural changes include drinking too much alcohol, poor sleep, isolation from friends
Effects: How do I know if I need to better manage my stress?
Perhaps you have noticed some of the above signs of stress that have continued for an extended period, or a concerned friend has asked if you are okay.
It can be difficult to notice your own stress when you are in the middle of it, so taking a stress test, such as an online one from the Stress Management Society, can help you gauge your own stress levels.
Then you can start to find some stress management techniques that could work for you.15
What are the long-term effects of not managing stress?
Looking through the lists of cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioural signs of stress you will notice how experiencing these signs for a prolonged period could have a knock-on effect on your overall health.
This can also then have an impact on your work, home life, and your relationships with others.
See your GP if you are concerned about any of your symptoms.
How stress can affect your love life
It’s been a bad day at work, and your stress levels are already through the roof. You’re late, and your partner has a face like thunder.
You’d like to kiss and make up, but you’re not sure if you’ll be up to the job: it seems as your stress levels go up, your sex drive goes down. Don’t panic; you’re not alone.
Low libido is incredibly common.
In a two-year study, experts at Southampton University quizzed 11,500 British men and women about their interest in having sex with their long- term partner: 15% of men and 34% of women said that for at least three months of the last year, they just hadn’t had the urge.16
Experts think that stress plays some part in that.
A different study, published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, looked at more than 2000 men, and found they were nearly twice as likely to have problems in the bedroom if they were under stress at work.17
Why does stress affect your sex drive?
There are a few reasons that stress stops you from having the urge to get close to your partner:
Fight or flight
Frankly, your inner caveman has a lot to answer for. Despite the fact that it hasn’t seen a sabre-toothed tiger for some years now, your brain classes stress as a physical threat that you will either need to run from or fight.
As such, when you’re under stress, it doesn’t want you lying around having a kiss and a cuddle – which is why you simply don’t feel the urge.18
At the same time, stress triggers hormonal changes in the body, producing higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol is made from the same building blocks as testosterone – and if your body is making one hormone, it can interfere with the production of the other, so if testosterone levels fall, so does libido.19
Handpicked content: Tips to boost libido for men
Stress = more arguments
A 2009 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that when we’re stressed, we’re more likely to fly off the handle with our partner.20
And frankly, no-one wants to get jiggy with someone they’re angry at – even if you’re in the mood, your partner may not be. Female libido is very much linked to state of mind.
Handpicked content: About stress and how you can manage yours
Science-backed ways to fight stress – and improve your sex life
The good news is there are a few tactics that can help reduce both your stress, improve your relationship and rev up your libido. Try introducing some of these into your relationship:
The scent of a partner calms us down in times of stress, according to 2018 research at the University of British Columbia.
Their theory was that the familiar odour makes you feel safe – and this lowers cortisol levels.21
Not only does this also lower cortisol levels in the body, but saliva passed from men to women during kissing contains testosterone, which may raise female libido.22
It’s a cliché but it does work.
And what’s more, the giver gets a psychological boost from the activity too, say researchers at the UK’s Northumbria University.
Plus, it works fast – couples who introduced the idea found they suffered less stress and greater overall wellbeing in just three weeks.23
Try an aromatherapy oil containing lavender, traditionally used for its calming effects.24
Try some herbs
A 2017 study, published in Nutrire, found that Korean ginseng raises energy levels and helps to dilate blood vessels, which may improve blood flow for arousal.25
Lastly, have a regular date night
According to the USA’s National Marriage Project, nights out together reduce stress, improve your relationship and make you more likely to get jiggy, too.
Their report looked at data from more than 12,000 couples and found those who went out together at least once a week were also more than three times more likely to be satisfied with their sex life.
That’s got to be worth the price of a cinema ticket!26
The best stress relief techniques
You may find some lifestyle changes help manage, or even prevent your stress symptoms.27
These could include exercising more, reducing your intake of alcohol, drugs, and caffeine, and eating a healthy balanced diet.
It can also help to manage your time and priorities with to-do lists and schedules, and focus on what you have achieved, as well as factoring in time to relax or do something that interests you.
Breathing and relaxation techniques can slow down the heart rate and promote relaxation, while sharing your feelings and concerns with a good listener can help reduce the feelings of overwhelm.
Keep an eye on the effects on your body, since sometimes you can be so anxious about the problem causing the stress that you do not notice its effects.
Looking for some stress busters that do not take any planning?
It can be challenging to think about changing your diet or planning your time when you are overwhelmed with stress.
Check out our easy fixes to help calm your nervous system in seconds, with these instant stress busters, which can quickly help you gain perspective and work out your next steps.
There are also several traditional herbal remedies that are indicated for use for the relief of symptoms associated with stress.28
However you define stress, whether it is caused by a sudden life event or something more subtle, or perhaps it is in fact creating other issues for you, do not let it feed into a vicious cycle and impact further on other areas of your health and life.
Last updated: 13 August 2021