what causes stress and what are the physical signs?

What does stress feel like? There are many more physical symptoms to stress than a lot of people realise. Here’s how to identify them, and what to do when they appear.

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Stress is a condition that most of us will experience at some point in our lives. A small amount can be useful to motivate us at home or work. 

But if you feel constantly overwhelmed, this exposure to long-term (chronic) stress can have a real impact on your physical and mental health

You probably know how it feels to be stressed all too well. Your breath might quicken, perhaps your heart starts to pound, or your mouth feels dry, your muscles might tense and your hands are weirdly cold but sweaty.

What one person finds stressful another person might not. We all perceive the world differently, which means we all have different definitions of stress. This means some of us are more perceptible to stress than others.

When we feel stressed, it releases stress hormones which trigger the “fight or flight” response. This is designed to help our bodies handle stress, but long-term exposure can cause mental and physical illnesses.

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fight or flight: our natural response to danger

Fight or flight describes the body's automatic response to danger. It's thought that this evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago as a way to help us react to life-threatening situations. Because it's an automatic response, it's often triggered without us realising it - or being able to prevent it.

In the presence of danger, our eyes and/or ears send information to the amygdala, the area of the brain which is responsible for processing our emotions. The amygdala sends a distress signal to an area at the base of the brain called the hypothalamus, which communicates with the body via the nervous system.

The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system. This sends signals to the adrenal glands, which then produce hormones including adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol into the bloodstream. As these hormones circulate through the body, they trigger a range of physical changes.

physical signs of stress

Some of the physical symptoms of stress you may experience include:

  • faster heart rate, chest pain, or feeling like your heart is racing
  • dry mouth and decreased saliva production
  • headaches, dizziness, or shaking
  • sweating
  • raised blood pressure
  • more energy (caused by the release of sugars and fats into the muscles)
  • muscle tension or jaw clenching

If the brain perceives the threat as ongoing, the hypothalamus releases more hormones. These act on the adrenal glands, making them release more cortisol and leaving the body in a continued state of alert.

When the brain believes the threat is over, it reduces cortisol levels. The hypothalamus also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which dampens the stress response.

long-term effects of chronic stress

Sometimes, a stress response can be useful. It can boost our awareness in stressful situations and help us cope with emergencies.

But if it happens too often, or for too long, the content release of stress hormones can lead to physical health problems including:

  • stomach or digestive problems like diarrhoea, constipation, and nausea
  • a weakened immune system, causing regular colds and infections
  • exhaustion or sleeping problems
  • heart disease

Long-term stress can also lead to emotional and mental health symptoms, such as:

It’s incredibly important to listen to our bodies, especially if we’re experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above. Stress, and the symptoms of stress, must be taken seriously. If they’re not, as we’ve seen, it can cause real issues for our mental and physical health.

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seven ways to prevent stress

1. move more

Exercising reduces the build up of stress hormones in our body. Even a short walk outdoors can boost your mood. It can also give you an opportunity to clear your mind without any distractions.

2. eat well

While we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of treats, or become obsessive about our diets, eating a balanced diet will naturally boost your mood and give you more energy.

3. sleep well

Getting a good night’s sleep helps you keep things in perspective. If you’re struggling to sleep well, Sleepstation can support you.

4. stay positive

It’s natural for us to only focus on what we haven’t achieved each day. But it’s important to sit back and think about what you have achieved. This will help to improve your mindset over time.

5. set realistic goals for each day, week, and month

Doing so will narrow your view and help you feel more in control of short and long-term tasks.

6. set boundaries

Saying ‘no’ to colleagues, family members, and loved ones can be terrifying. Which is why we usually say yes, even if it’s likely to increase our stress levels. But saying ‘no’ promotes healthy boundaries with the people around you. It also opens up a dialogue which allows you to talk through what your current focus is.

7. make time for relaxation

Dedicating a small portion of your day to relaxing not only gives you something to look forward to, but also gives you that all-important opportunity to switch off.

Self-care is often sniffed at but has never been more important. Simple things like treating yourself to a long bath after a tough day helps you compartmentalise the negative emotions you may be experiencing, relax tension you’re carrying in your muscles, and calm your mind.

Find out more about how self-compassion boosts our mental wellbeing.

Our three step breathing exercise video below can help bring calmness and clarity to your morning routine in just a few minutes.

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If you're worried about your mental health and wellbeing, talk to us. From a listening ear, to counselling sessions with a qualified counsellor, we'll help you work through any difficulties you're facing.

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We support past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW), ACA students, ICAEW staff members, and the family and carers of members and students. 

  1. No matter where your career takes you, past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England Wales (ICAEW) are eligible for caba’s services for life, even if you change your career and leave accountancy 
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I’m an accountant, but not a member of ICAEW, can you still help?

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