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Stress Zones - being aware of your stress levels

We all deal with different amounts of stress in our lives and some stress is good for us, but how can we tell when we are living with too much? Priory’s Dr Stroma Macfarlane (MBChB, MRCPsych) from Priory Hospital Woking explains the importance of recognising our individual stress levels…

Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure and is a growing problem in the busy, demanding world we live in. Increasing demands of work, relationships and finances can all lead to feelings of not being able to cope with the pressure. It is important to recognise that everyone reacts differently to stress and situations that are stressful for some may be less or more so for others. In particular, work-related stress is a growing problem - the Health and Safety Executive estimates that every year around two million people experience a health problem they believe is caused by work. Stress is by far the largest cause of work-related illnesses.

Why are we feeling stressed?

Stress can affect us physically and mentally. It can interfere with the way we think, our feelings and emotions and how we behave. Being under stress causes a 'fight or flight response' due to release of hormones like adrenaline. Some stress is necessary and helps us perform to well - meeting deadlines and targets for example. The problem arises when the stress is constant and daily and we are exposed to these hormones all the time. Early signs of stress include poor sleep, tiredness and irritability. You may notice you aren’t performing as well at work and starting to drink more to unwind and rely on caffeine to get you through the day. If the stress continues to build unchecked, your ability to do your job will become affected. You may struggle to get on with people you work with and may start to experience physical symptoms such as headaches, high blood pressure and irritable bowel syndrome.

Other problems associated with stress

As well as physical health problems, mental health problems such as anxiety and depression can develop if stress is left unrecognised and untreated. This can lead to significant difficulties not only at work but in other areas of your life - relationships can suffer, panic attacks can start and sometimes depression can be accompanied by thoughts of self-harm and suicide as well as dependence on alcohol and drugs as a way of coping.

The importance of treating stress early

Spotting the early signs of stress and doing something about it is important to stop these developing and to prevent unhealthy coping habits taking hold. If you think you are showing symptoms of stress, there are some simple things you can do like finding ways to relax, take more exercise and reduce your commitments.

Treatment for stress

If these do not help, you should seek support from health professionals like your GP and explore options such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness and other therapies which can help treat stress and deal with associated mood and anxiety problems. If you are depressed, anxious or drinking too much, you may benefit from more specialised help. The first step is to recognise you need help and support.

This page was reviewed by Dr Stroma Macfarlane (MBChB, MRCPsych), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Woking

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