Family Health Diary

What is stress?

In our caveman days, stress, also known as the “flight or fright” response, was a self-preservation mechanism triggered by physical danger, but for modern man it is usually brought on by feelings of frustration or worry.

Stress is not all bad and can provide motivation to face and deal with everyday problems. However, if your ability to cope with the situation or problem prevents you from dealing with it, then the stress response persists for longer than the immediate situation. This can seriously affect your immune system, digestive system, cardiovascular system and your overall health. Long-term stress can also develop into more serious mental health problems like anxiety disorder or depression.

How your body responds to stress

Your adrenal gland releases large amounts of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, which sends a burst of glucose and fatty acids into your blood for energy; this increases your heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure; reduces blood flow to the stomach, bowels, skin and extremities; and increases blood supply to the large muscles. Your blood thickens (to stem any bleeding from injury) and anything not needed for immediate survival shuts down, which includes your immune and digestive systems. All these changes are designed to prepare you for a burst of physical activity (such as a fight, if you were still a caveman) and if the stress hormones are not used for their intended purpose, then what remains are raised blood sugar and fat levels, racing heart and feelings of stress, tension and frustration. Not good for your health at all!

What causes stress?
Many life events create stress including:

  • Bereavement and grief
  • Divorce
  • Relationship problems
  • Too many demands on your time
  • Problems at work
  • Stressful job
  • New job
  • Unemployment
  • Moving house
  • Money worries
  • Long-term illness
  • Trauma

What are the symptoms?


  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed
  • Tiredness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Problems sleeping
  • Changes in appetite
  • Muscle tension
  • Aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Visiting the toilet more often.


  • Loss of confidence
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Irritability
  • Depression.

Anxiety and panic

There is a thin line between our response to a stressful event or situation and a continued feeling of anxiety and depression. If you find that negative feelings persist and begin to impact on enjoyment of life and your ability to cope with everyday life, then you may be suffering from a more serious condition such as generalised anxiety disorder or clinical depression. Signs to look our for are:

  • Aggravation of skin conditions such a psoriasis and eczema
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhoea
  • Prolonged feelings of sadness, fear or worthlessness
  • Panic attacks.

Prevention and treatment

The best thing you can do to reduce the physical and psychological effects of stress is to manage your response to stressful situations or events.

1. Are you stressed?
It is important to recognise symptoms of stress and identify what it is causing you to be stressed. Think about how you feel and react in a stressful situation and what you need to do to feel better.

2. Face your demons
Loss of control is one of the most common triggers for stress, whatever the cause. Try to face up to problems and take back control, then develop strategies to deal with them.

3. Seek help
If you have physical symptoms that you can’t explain they may be caused by stress and you should visit your medical practitioner, as it’s important to make sure that there’s no underlying illness. You can then work together with your doctor and/or a counsellor to develop strategies for reducing stress. In cases of severe stress or anxiety you may be prescribed anti-depressant medication as a short-term measure.

4. How to reduce stress

  • Improve your diet – Eat a healthy balanced diet high in whole grains, fruit and vegetables to keep your immune system healthy; avoid or cut back on caffeine, alcohol and sugar which increase stress hormones.
  • Do regular exercise – Exercise can improve your mental wellness and relieves stress because it stimulates endorphins (that wonderful natural feel-good factor), gets your heart pumping, speeds up your metabolism, reduces levels of stress hormones, enhances the immune system and clears your mind.
  • Practice relaxation techniques – Try meditation, yoga or Tai Chi, which use controlled breathing to calm and relax the body, or combine physical movement with mental stillness.
  • Take time out – Just chill, read a book, listen to music or have a relaxing massage.
  • Try alternative therapies – Hypnotherapy allows your subconscious mind to eliminate negative thoughts and be receptive to positive suggestion. Naturopathic or herbal remedies and aromatherapy may also help.
  • Breathe slowly – Fast shallow breathing is all part of the stress response, so focus on taking long slow deep breaths and you will feel calmer.
  • Laugh more – Laughter reduces stress hormones, increase endorphins, allows emotional release, reduces blood pressure, releases tension and strengthens the immune system.

5. Stress management strategy

Develop a stress management strategy and use it when you feel symptoms of stress creeping up on you. Here are some suggestions:

  • Share the problem by talking about worries, fears, guilt or frustrations with your friends and family or seek counselling.
  • Create and use your own support network of friends or supportive colleagues.
  • Use coping mechanisms to reduce stress at work: plan, organise, delegate.
  • Stop and think before reacting, remain in control of a situation.
  • Look for the positive and let go of negative feelings.
  • Change what you can but accept that you cannot change everything.
  • Make your goals realistic, don’t aim for perfection.
  • Maintain a sense of perspective and, above all, humour.

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