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What is stress? The causes & impact of stress

Laura Harcourt

Written byLaura Harcourt

2 ladies completing a yoga workout on the beach in front of a sunset
Explore our comprehensive guide to stress, delving into the causes and impact that stress can have on the body.
We all know life can feel a bit like a rollercoaster sometimes and feelings of stress can come at any time - whether it's from feeling under pressure at work, worrying about big life changes, or simply fretting about crossing everything off your to-do list.

Spotting stress in the heat of the moment can be tough, but its effects can stick around for the long term. That's why it's so important to keep tabs on your stress levels and look out for those close to you too.

Understanding what stress is and what might be causing it is the first step to tackling its impact. In this guide, we’ll fill you in on everything you need to know about stress, from what it is, to its causes and its impact on your health and well-being, so you can start tackling your stress today.

What exactly is stress?

Simply put, stress is our body’s natural reaction to feeling under pressure or threatened. This usually happens when we’re in a situation that we don’t feel we can manage or control.1

When we feel stressed, our bodies release a hormone called adrenaline that gives us a boost to act quickly.1 This is also known as the fight or flight response, a term which was coined in 1932 by Walter Radford Cannon.2  Cannon’s theory stated that animals (and humans) respond to threatening situations with a flood of hormones to prepare them to fight or flee.2

This was once really important for our survival and critical to keeping our hunter-gatherer ancestors alive, but in our modern world, stress could be damaging our health. Whilst it is believed that a little bit of stress is good for us, as it motivates us to push through fears or pain, too much stress can leave us in a permanent fight or flight mode.3

High stress levels can affect our body, relationships, and mood in the long term and can lead to mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion, often referred to as burnout.1

What causes stress?

Many situations can make us feel stressed, from day-to-day activities to even life events like getting married, having a baby, or moving house – despite being perceived as exciting life changes!4

Identifying what is stressing you out can be hard, but doing so can help you find ways to manage your feelings, find a solution and seek adequate help if necessary.

The NHS states that the 4 most common causes of stress are thought to include:4
  1. Work – struggling to find work, work pressure, losing your job, and even retirement are all situations that can cause stress, as well as dealing with complicated work relationships and situations 
  2. Financial issues – sometimes linked to work too, unexpected payments, loans, struggling to pay the bills, mortgage or rent can leave anyone feeling overwhelmed and worried
  3. Family – problems in a relationship, break ups, changing family dynamics and being a carer can cause people a lot of stress 
  4. Health – yourself or someone you love falling ill, injuries, and grieving the death of someone are all stressful situations
As well as these 4 well-known causes of stress, there are believed to be many other “hidden” causes that scientists have discovered over the years. The American Institute of Stress has identified five other key hidden causes of stress, which include:5
  • Childhood trauma 
  • Lack of sleep 
  • Having a Type A personality (highly competitive, overachieving) 
  • Perceived lack of socioeconomic status 
  • Perceived lack of control

What are the symptoms of stress?

Stress affects everyone differently and can have a wide range of symptoms that can affect:4

How you behave: you may feel irritable, find yourself snapping at people more, stress eating, and indulge in drinking or sleeping more.

How you think: you might have difficulty concentrating, struggle to make decisions, forget things, and feel overwhelmed.

How you feel physically: you may have more headaches, stomach problems, muscle tension, chest pain, and sexual problems.

What are the long-term effects of stress on the body?

Stress can really take its toll on your body and mind, particularly if you experience high stress levels for long periods of time. tress symptoms when unmanaged can worsen over time and, in some cases, can lead to long-term issues.1

In the long-term, chronic stress can really affect your mental health, often increasing the risk of developing anxiety and depression, , loneliness, and mood swings.6

Stress can cause long-term physical problems too, with research showing potential links between chronic stress and conditions like heart disease, obesity, Type II diabetes and hypertension.7

Whilst stress may result in changes in your behaviour in the short term, it can also affect your behaviour in the long term too. Research has explored a role of stress in addiction, increase danger, and sexual problems.6,8,9

Other long-term behavioural effects of stress can include:6 
  • Indecisiveness 
  • Inability to concentrate 
  • Poor memory 
  • Grinding your teeth
  • Skin rashes, picking, or itching 
  • Spending or shopping too much 
  • Withdrawing from those around you 
  • Not exercising or exercising too much
Whilst stress may result in changes in your behaviour in the short term, it can also affect your behaviour in the long term too. Research has explored a role of stress in addiction, increase danger, and sexual problems.6,8,9

Other long-term behavioural effects of stress can include:6
  • Indecisiveness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor memory
  • Grinding your teeth
  • Skin rashes, picking, or itching
  • Spending or shopping too much
  • Withdrawing from those around you
  • Not exercising or exercising too much

How can stress affect your relationship?

You may notice that as your stress levels go up, your sex drive goes down, but don’t panic; you’re not alone. Low libido is incredibly common, and experts think that stress plays some part in that.10

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

Even though your eyes haven’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.2

As such, when you’re under stress, it makes you not want to lie around having a kiss and a cuddle – which may be the reason why you don’t feel the urge.

It’s hormonal

At the same time, stress triggers hormonal changes in the body, producing higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.11

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.12

Stress = more arguments

Stress is common in everyone’s life at some stage including in relationships sometimes, with research showing a clear link between stress and an increase in more negative interactions, like arguments.13

When you’re arguing or feeling unhappy with your loved one, you’re likely to also experience a loss of libido – arguments aren’t exactly an aphrodisiac! Libido is very much linked to your state of mind, and if you’re not feeling great, you’re not likely to have much of a desire for intimacy.10

How can you manage stress?

It can be difficult to notice that you’re stressing out when you are in the middle of it, but learning the signs and symptoms of stress can help you recognise it sooner and help stop it from having an impact on your work, home life, and your relationships with others.

There are methods of managing stress that you can try to incorporate into your daily life, like:14,15
  • Talk to someone about how you feel 
  • Get outside
  • Try meditation 
  • Do some exercise16
  • Split bigger tasks up into smaller pieces 
  • Try some breathing exercises17 
  • Write down the things you’re grateful for 
  • Plan out your time 
  • Find time to relax 
To find more easy ways to help you manage your stress levels, check out our guide to tackling stress.
If you’re concerned about your symptoms and have tried managing your stress on your own, you should see your GP. Sometimes just talking through how you feel with someone can help greatly, and your GP will also be able to help you find appropriate ways to manage your stress.

The bottom line

Everyone experiences stress in their lives from a range of causes, whether it’s work, money, health, or family. It can be very overwhelming and make you feel not yourself. In the long term, too much stress could worsen pre-existing conditions and exacerbate mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

It is important to find ways to manage your stress levels, but you don’t have to struggle alone. If you find that you are stressing out frequently or feeling under pressure and overwhelmed constantly, speak to your GP – they’ll be able to offer you advice and help.

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