Stress: warning signs

How to spot stress and how to talk about it.
What is stress?

Stress is normal. It is what we feel when a situation is hard to handle.

Adrenaline rushes through the body, increasing heart rate and boosting mental and physical alertness. We feel sweaty, tingly and get butterflies. This ‘fight or flight’ response was very useful to our ancestors coping with physical threats such as a marauding mammoth or sabre-toothed tiger.

Today’s ‘threats’ are often far less serious but far more frequent. The trouble is that stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are harmful when we don’t actually need them. Over time, they can damage the immune system and the heart and reduce both physical and mental well-being.

This means it’s not healthy - or practical - to go into ‘fight or flight’ mode every five minutes. It’s much easier - and healthier - to respond in a less stressful way. But how do you do that? If we can figure out how we feel and what has caused it, we can respond more smartly.

Too much stress can:

  • damage your immune system and heart
  • increase your chances of serious health problems
  • reduce life-expectancy
  • damage your sex life.
Why does understanding stress matter?

Stress causes mental health problems.

One in four of us will have a mental health problem this year. They’re responsible for half of all long-term absences from work.

Unchecked mental health problems can be very serious indeed. About three-quarters of the people treated for depression are women but about three quarters of the people who commit suicide are men. Since depression is a major cause of suicide, something doesn’t add up. Is it us?

Talking about stress is not a sign of weakness. It takes balls.

What causes stress?

Here are some of the common causes of stress today. Which of them push your buttons?

  • Work
  • Unemployment
  • Money
  • Bereavement and other endings including moving house, splitting up with a partner, changing job or children leaving the family home
  • Your health and mood
  • Weather
  • Partners and friends (and their absence - loneliness)
  • Family breakdown
  • Sex and sexuality
  • Drink and drugs
  • Addictions
  • Being on the receiving end of violence or abuse (online as well as in real life).

Short-term ups and downs are normal but when you start having long-term problems in one or more of these areas, the stress will mount. That’s not because you’re weak; that’s because you’re normal.

You may react by getting out of a situation - the ‘flight’ response - and in some cases a new start might be what you need.

But if you keep changing jobs, partners or moving home, it may be that it’s not the situation that needs to change but your reaction to it.

​What are the warning signs?

A relentless build-up of pressure, without the opportunity to recover, can lead to harmful stress. The important thing is to recognise the warning signs while you can do something about it. Common signs are:

  • Eating more or less than normal
  • Mood swings
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling tense or anxious
  • Not sleeping properly (or wanting to sleep all the time)
  • Poor memory or forgetfulness
  • Excessive drinking and/or drug use.
  • Feeling really tired and lacking in energy
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Behaving out of character
  • Finding it hard to concentrate and struggling at work
  • Losing interest in things you usually enjoy
  • Having unusual experiences, like seeing or hearing things that others don’t.
  • There may be physical signs too like headaches, irritable bowel syndrome or aches and pains.
How do I talk about how I'm feeling?

We all know how good it is to talk when you really connect with someone. For some of us, social media can only go so far. Indeed, research suggests social media can make some of us miserable.

‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ is a cliché because it’s true. It’s not about other people telling us what to do or being needy. It is simply that talking often lets us see the solution for ourselves in a way thinking alone can’t. We’re not alone - we often share the same problems.

Having a chat about something doesn’t have to be a big deal. Share an activity with the person you want to chat to and talk while you’re doing it: washing-up, cleaning the car, painting a fence, playing a computer game.

Even if it barely involves talking, connecting with others and feeling part of something in whatever setting feels good: playing five-a-side, going to the pub or underwater basket-weaving. Meet new people through a local club, group or internet meet-up - especially if social media are dominating your life.

Be honest with yourself, especially if you’re often angry or feel disrespected. Then, if you can, find someone else you can be honest with. It doesn’t have to be a mate or family member. 

Feeling uncomfortable in your own skin won’t get better with time. Most likely it will get worse. Old-fashioned ideas of what it means to be a man can make it difficult for us to talk honestly. Some of us can’t even ask for directions in the street because we don’t want to look vulnerable. But silence isn’t a sign of strength. Silence is easy: you just keep your mouth shut. Being honest is the real strength. Accept yourself as you are and be fine with it.

If you’re not hurting yourself or anyone else, what’s wrong with being yourself? (Even if that is different from what you think society and other people want.)

How do I talk to a mate who's having problems?

If you think a mate is bottling something up, there’s a simple way to make a difference: do something together. Get him to give you a hand. Feeling wanted makes us all feel better. You don’t have to talk but if you want to, doing something together makes it easier. Open up yourself - if you think he has work issues, perhaps talk about your work. Try to:

  • Keep it real: take it seriously but don’t make it a big deal.
  • Ask ‘How’s it going?’.
  • Keep in touch more: text or email.
  • Doing stuff is as good as a chat: let your mate see that you know he’s still the same person.
  • Talk. Swap stories: don’t ignore the difficult stuff if it comes up - you don’t need to solve it or be an expert, you just need ears.
  • Be there: ask if you can do anything.
Should I see a GP?

If symptoms 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. 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.

See the Depression FAQs for more on treatments for stress, depression and anxiety.

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This content is wholly based on the Men's Health Forum's man manual Beat Stress, Feel Better which was prepared in line with the NHS England Information Standard of which the MHF is a member. Follow the links to buy copies.


Date published 31/01/15
Date of last review 18/05/20
Date of next review 18/05/23


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