Stress (mate māharahara) is your body’s natural reaction to a threat or an excess demand. Some stress is good for you and helps motivate you to get something done. But when you are under too much stress for too long, it affects your health and wellbeing. Learning how to manage stress is a key life skill.
- When you are stressed, your heart pounds, your breathing quickens, your muscles tense and you start to sweat. Once the threat or difficulty passes, these physical changes settle down.
- If you're constantly stressed, your body stays in a state of high alert and you may develop stress-related symptoms, which can affect your body, mood and behaviour. You may also not think clearly.
- Signs of too much stress can include headaches, stomach aches, poor sleep, being tired and irritable, or using stimulants such as coffee or sugar to keep you going.
- Health conditions that can develop as a result of too much stress include high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety and depression.
- Because stress is a part of life, learning how to manage it is key to maintaining good physical and mental health.
What is stress?
Stress is our body’s natural reaction to a demand or threat. It triggers your body’s fight, freeze or flight response, which causes a surge of hormones that would have helped our ancestors to run away from the stressor or fight it. It is supposed to be a short, sharp response to danger. But if you feel stressed a lot of the time, you put a lot of pressure on your health.
Stress can come from many sources such as health issues, relationship problems, work, financial issues, deadlines, exams or unrealistic expectations you put on yourself. What causes stress for you may not be stressful for someone else.
Some stress is helpful as it can motivate you to meet a deadline or get things done. But long-term stress can increase the risk of health conditions, such as:
- high blood pressure
- obesity and diabetes
- depression or anxiety
- heart disease
- muscle tension, headaches
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- suicide in extreme situations.
A stress-related condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after experiencing trauma, such as from war, physical or sexual assault, or a natural disaster.
What are the symptoms of long-term stress?
Common symptoms caused by long-term stress include:
- headaches, muscle tension, neck or back pain
- dry mouth
- feeling anxious or jittery
- being more irritable or angry than normal
- overeating or loss of appetite and not eating well
- upset stomach
- chest pains, rapid heartbeat
- not sleeping
- feeling tired, flat, down or worn out
- finding it hard to concentrate or focus
- needing coffee, energy drinks or sugar to keep going
- increased skin infections, mouth ulcers, colds, rashes or asthma.
Wind down before you get wound up
It helps to learn how to recognise stress and find ways to cope with it before your body's stress response fully kicks in.
Here are some ideas to help you get started:
- Include things you find relaxing in your everyday life, such as listening to music, mindfulness meditation, connecting with friends and regular exercise.
- Learn useful anti-stress life skills such as effective problem solving, healthy communication and healthy thinking.
- Maintain a healthy work-life balance, take frequent breaks and find other ways to manage stress at work.
- Take care of yourself by being physically active every day, eating a healthy diet, having good sleep habits
- Make time to do fun things and spend time with the people who are important to you.
What can I do if I’m feeling stressed?
- Talk with someone who will listen and provide good support and advice if you want it.
- Review all the sources of stress in your life – what can be reduced, stopped or changed to take some pressure off?
- Learn about time management and setting priorities – you can only do so much each day.
- Plan breaks in your day – change your habits to make this part of your routine.
- Problem-solve and make action plans to help break things down into doable steps.
- Look at your lifestyle and make sure you are eating healthy foods and getting enough sleep and exercise.
- Connect with what is really important in your life to give you perspective about the things that don't matter as much.
Read more about managing stress.
Who can I talk to if I'm feeling stressed?
If you are finding it difficult to manage your stress, tell your doctor or find a counsellor or therapist to talk to.
Te Hikuwai resources for wellbeing – stress/tāmitanga Te Pou, NZ, 2022
Manage your stress Small Steps, NZ
Stress Fresh Mind, NZ
How to deal with stress NHS, UK
Find out how to tell if someone is struggling with their mental health BBC, UK, 2021
Problem solving worksheet BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information
Online life skills resource Living Life to the Full
How dogs can help with mental health – mind boosting benefits of dog ownership UK
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) resources Get Self Help, UK
Ignite Online NZ support to strengthen wellbeing
|Tina Earl is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years’ experience, currently in private practice and consultancy. She has been a clinical lead for psychological services in the DHB and primary care. Tina has authored resources at a national level for mental health clinical practice and service delivery, and is a subject matter consultant for psychological practice and mental health.