A father with his three kids jumping on the bed around him.
Would you know how to spot the signs and symptoms of stress?Image by: Movember
A father with his three kids jumping on the bed around him.
20 June 2022

What is stress? Know the signs and symptoms. How to cope and get help.

6 minutes read time

Did you know that your body releases chemicals when you’re stressed? That feeling of being on edge isn’t just a state of mind. It’s actually your body reacting to perceived danger.

Scientists have coined a name for this reaction. It’s called ‘fight or flight’ (or the ‘stress response’) and over millions of years it evolved in humans to help us fight or run away when a threat appeared (the term freeze and fawn is also used). We’ve all experienced it and it often feels out of our control, but when it comes down to it, stress is a part of being human.

What is stress?

Stress is a common and perfectly normal response to new or challenging moments in our lives. It also comes in many different forms.

It’s the pumping adrenaline as a deadline approaches. It’s your heart racing out of your chest in a moment of road rage. And it’s the stomach-churning ‘butterflies’ before public speaking.

All living things – yep, even plants – experience and respond to stress. That’s because dealing with stressors (things that cause stress) is a normal part of being alive. In most cases, the stressful thing happens. Then it’s over, and we move on.

Stress can be a problem, however, when it starts to interfere with your daily life. This is when something stresses you out so much that it affects your mood, your sleep, your job, your health or your relationships.

Signs and symptoms of stress

Stress can affect you both physically and mentally. It can come and go quickly (you feel your blood pressure soar after a car accident before it settles). Or it can hang around and have long term impacts down the line (your risk of heart disease increases).

Here are what some of the common short-term effects of stress look like:

  • Your appetite changes. You’re not eating. Or you’re eating way more than usual.
  • You’re feeling irritable, easily frustrated and small things set you off.
  • You get headaches, teeth grinding or other physical symptoms of stress.
  • You have trouble sleeping.
  • You find it hard to concentrate or finish simple tasks.
  • You feel burnt out, fatigued and unmotivated.

When it comes to the long-term effects of stress you might notice:

  • You get sick more often.
  • You get body aches.
  • Illnesses you thought had passed flare up again

Stress and heart disease have also been linked, as have high blood pressure, heart attacks, and stroke. If it’s not obvious already, stress can have a big effect on mood.

What causes stress?

It may seem obvious, but it's worth knowing that stress causes stress. In fact, the greatest predictor of future stress is how stressed you are now and how you are coping/responding to it.

Having said that, stress can take hold in situations both big and small. Indeed, life-changing events or transitions are often linked to stress. Here are some common situations where it might pay to check your stress levels.

Becoming a dad. Ask any dad, and he’ll tell you that welcoming a new kid comes with challenges. New responsibilities, routines and a new family (and probably a lack of sleep) all need adjusting to.

A relationship changes. Flare-ups with friends, or the end of a romantic relationship can cause mental and emotional stress.

Work gets intense. Losing a job, getting a promotion, or finding new work can be a minefield.

Your finances change. Wondering how you’ll make ends meet, or working long hours to meet them, is a lot for anyone to handle.

" The best thing you can do is to acknowledge the symptoms of stress when they happen. "

How do you reduce stress?

When stress hits, it can be tempting to go for a short-term ‘reward’. That might mean Uber Eats for the third night in a row. For some it could mean binges of gaming, porn or gambling. And for others, that might mean smoking, drinking or drugs. It can also take the form of excessive exercise, or being overly restrictive in your diet.

While many of these might make you feel better in the moment, relying on them to help cope with stress only makes things worse in the long-term. That's because they only mask the symptoms ­– they don't eliminate the problem. Think of it like putting a sheet over a fire: the fire always breaks through eventually.

A much better way for coping with stress is to take action that tackles the source of stress head-on. While the exact ‘how’ will vary from person to person, here are some common ways to do that.

Get moving. Endorphins are those feel-good vibes you get after breaking a sweat. Run, smash out a gym session, or just go for a steady walk. There’s a good chance it’ll lift your mood and help release the tension.

Talk it out. This is one of the best things anyone can do. Talk to a friend, family member, partner, or a mental health professional. Reaching out to is the best way to get out of your own head and start to solve the issue. You know the saying, ‘a problem shared…’. You may be surprised to hear how many others have been in the same shoes. Seeking help is now the norm rather than exception, so know you’re not alone.

Try to eat right. Eating well gives you energy. However, try not to resort to fatty and sugar-filled foods as a way to deal with stress. No one’s saying you can't enjoy a burger. It's just that, as with many things in life, it's best done in moderation. So, strive for a balance.

Control the controllable. Stress can be worst when we feel we’ve got no control. So take charge of things you can control, and realistically accept what you can’t. It will make a difference. You probably can’t change a tough target at work or the dreaded annual family get-together. You can however try to change how you respond and what you do to cope better. To use a sport analogy: you can’t control the ref, the other team or the coach. You can, however, control your attitude, effort and fitness.

Know what gets to you. Figure out what stresses you out most. That might be finances, your home life, work, certain social occasions, or something else entirely (and often it's a combination). Simply being aware of what your triggers are can help a lot . While it won't make the stress-causing thing disappear (remember what we said about things you can and can't control), simply being prepared for something is in itself a way of mentally bracing yourself. It'll improve your outlook and help you cope.

A final word

Of course men experience stress. Even if it doesn’t ‘feel’ like stress. Which is why the best thing you can do is to acknowledge the symptoms of stress when they happen.

If stress is getting out of hand, talk to your GP. A doctor is a professional who is equipped with the tools to support you, whether that’s a referral to another professional, counselling, or tips for managing stress.

It may feel like a big move, but understanding stress is the first step on your way to managing it, and leading a health and happy life.