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Explains what stress is, what might cause it and how it can affect you. Includes information about ways you can help yourself and how to get support.

What is stress?

Stress is how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. It usually happens when we are in a situation that we don't feel we can manage or control.

When we experience stress, it can be as:

  • An individual, for example when you have lots of responsibilities that you are struggling to manage
  • Part of a group, for example if your family is going through a difficult time, such as bereavement or financial problems
  • Part of your community, for example if you belong to a religious group that is experiencing discrimination
  • A member of society, for example during natural disasters or events like the coronavirus pandemic

If you feel stress as part of a bigger group, you may all experience it differently. This can happen even if the cause of your stress is the same.

It's overwhelming. Sometimes you can't see beyond the thick fog of stress.

When is stress a problem?

Sometimes, a small amount of stress can help us to complete tasks and feel more energised. But stress can become a problem when it lasts for a long time or is very intense. In some cases, stress can affect our physical and mental health.

You might hear healthcare professionals refer to some types of stress as 'acute' or 'chronic':

  • Acute stress happens within a few minutes to a few hours of an event. It lasts for a short period of time, usually less than a few weeks, and is very intense. It can happen after an upsetting or unexpected event. For example, this could be a sudden bereavement, assault or natural disaster.
  • Chronic stress lasts for a long period of time or keeps coming back. You might experience this if you are under lots of pressure a lot of the time. You might also feel chronic stress if your day-to-day life is difficult, for example if you are a carer or if you live in poverty.

I had time off work with stress and anxiety issues. I was on a very slippery slope and getting further down said slope at a rapid speed. I was scared.

Is stress a mental health problem?

Stress is not normally considered a mental health problem. But it is connected to our mental health in several ways:

  • Stress can cause mental health problems. And it can make existing problems worse. For example, if you experience lots of stress, this might lead you to develop a mental health problem like anxiety or depression. Or a traumatic period of stress might lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Mental health problems can cause stress. You might find coping with the day-to-day symptoms of your mental health problem is stressful. You may also feel stressed about managing medication, healthcare appointments or other treatments.
  • You might use recreational drugs or alcohol to cope with stress. This could also affect your mental health, and cause further stress.

This information was published in March 2022. We will revise it in 2025.

References and bibliography available on request.

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