Buy the Booklet
The Man Manual - men's health made easy (in print)
Stress is a modern, widely-used word that's used to describe the feelings of "distress" experienced when tension (or boredom) become unbearably high. In fact, a moderate level of stress is important and beneficial — it's a key element that enables you to deal positively with the physical and emotional challenges of life.
When stress increases, you soon feel the effects as symptoms show up in all vital systems.
The most noticeable are physical symptoms because they often cause severe discomfort. They include:
Stress affects the mind as well as the body. Common mental symptoms include:
Prolonged stress can cause a range of negative feelings and behaviour and the resulting symptoms may seriously affect mental output. As problems mount up it becomes more difficult to cope.
Stress affects your whole body, lowering immunity and increasing the risk of disease. For example, there's good evidence that stress increases susceptibility to a wide range of illnesses, from the common cold to cancer.
Stress may also aggravate a range of conditions, including:
What's the risk? Problems relating to increased stress are very common. According to research commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive, up to five million people in the UK feel 'very' or 'extremely' stressed by work, with half a million feeling that stress is making them ill. Work-related stress costs the country nearly £4 billion a year - maybe more - in terms of absence and lost productivity.
The physical and mental symptoms of stress are triggered by an ancient survival mechanism, known as the fight-or-flight reaction. At the first hint of danger (perceived stressful situation), your body produces large quantities of the hormone adrenaline. This hormone floods the blood stream to instigate action. The response is instantaneous, and includes rapid pulse rate, sweat gland action, faster breathing, tenser muscles, release of stored-up blood sugar, dilated pupils, urgent bowel and bladder action and the drawing up of your testicles — all designed to make you run faster or punch harder.
Nowadays, of course, the need for true combat or a speedy retreat is rarely necessary, so instead of burning off energy generated for self-protection, it remains stagnant and your body must adjust to a continual state of tension. Unfortunately, this unnatural state quickly leads to feelings of chronic stress.
Psychologists refer to sources of stress as "life events" and the list ranges widely from major upheavals to everyday situations. These everyday life events are neither special nor rare, just things that happen to most people at various times in their lives: retirement, divorce, exams, new relationships and holidays all count.
Research has shown that if a string of life events follow hard on each other, without giving the body time to recover, the effects are always more intense. The vital point to note is that it is the accumulation of events close together that increases the stress, rather than the severity of individual problems.
Stress-inducing life events include:
A moderate amount of stress is inevitable and a bonus; it is neither desirable nor possible to eliminate all stress from your life. On bad days you may crave to be stress-free, but too little action can have the opposite effect. Remember: without challenges "Jack would become a very dull boy".
Everyone reacts to stress in the same physical way — with a fight-or-flight response — but the intensity of each person's reaction is an individual matter. Several factors influence the strength of your reaction and your ability to respond effectively, including:
Your best bet is to prevent stress getting out of control by finding ways both to tackle the causes of stress and to improve your coping strategies.
Deciding whether to consult someone about stress depends on how you feel. If symptoms of distress are making you unwell it would be advisable to seek help without delay. You could speak to your GP, the practice nurse at the surgery, the occupational health nurse at your workplace (if there is one) or a stress counsellor.
There is no single test that diagnoses stress. The main investigations will include a physical examination to eliminate other possible diseases and a discussion that helps the doctor pinpoint evidence of stress-inducing problems.
You should certainly consult a health professional if you are depressed because of stress, or if stress is causing you anxiety or leading to panic attacks.
Most cases of stress can be dealt with through self-help measures — see "How can I help myself?". Treatment by a health professional should be needed only in severe cases. If every person with stress saw their GP, the NHS would quickly grind to a halt.
A range of therapies and medication can help reduce the worst symptoms of stress:
Most cases of stress can be dealt with by self-help measures.
Keep a stress diary for a few days to note your sources of stress and how you reacted.
Example of a stress diary entry:
Use the information in your diary to spot your stress triggers and to help you think about how you could tackle the cause and find ways to cope better.
This depends largely on how well you manage your stress. Short-term self-help or (if necessary) professionally-managed therapies can work well. But there can be health risks if stress is not successfully reduced in the long term. Your aim should be to achieve and maintain an equilibrium that feels comfortable for you.
We don't currently post comments online but are always keen to hear your feedback.
Date of last review 08/04/14
Date of next review 08/04/17