Stress: Signs, Causes, Management & Prevention

Written By: Dr. Laila Adel Mahmoud

Dr. Laila Adel Mahmoud specialises in adult psychiatry and is also an expert in the fields of general, community, emergency, addiction, and child psychiatry.

Updated On:December 26, 2023

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What is Stress?

Everyone, at one time or another, experiences stress to a certain degree. This stress can take the form of physical, emotional or psychological strain. It is your body’s instinctive response to a cause that requires action or attention. Although for the most part stress is an anticipated part of everyday life, it can become problematic when the stress negatively affects your mental & physical well-being. It can affect anyone & can be experienced by any age group. Short, mild bouts of stress can be motivating & spur us on to meet work deadlines or accomplish tasks. 

Too much stress, however, can affect your mood, health & relationships especially when not addressed properly. It can significantly increase irritability & negatively affect self-esteem. Extended periods of increased stress can lead to physical & emotional exhaustion & is often referred to as burnout.

What are the Symptoms or Signs of Stress? 

Symptoms of stress can vary from mild to severe. Mild cases can be treated & managed with more ease than severe cases in which burnout has taken its toll. Sufferers of stress usually experience multiple symptoms. These symptoms can include: 

  • Avoiding challenging responsibilities
  • Racing thoughts
  • Increased irritability 
  • Lack of confidence 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Dysfunctional eating habits - eating more or less than usual
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Constant feeling of worry or anxiety
  • Avoiding people
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Excessive drinking or smoking

Common physical symptoms of stress in adults can also include:

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Diarrhoea
  • Decreased libido
  • Grinding teeth
  • Clammy or sweaty palms

When Should I Talk to a Doctor About Stress?

While stressful situations can be inevitable, healthy management of both triggers & reactions can, for the most part, keep you in a position of control. However, when management becomes increasingly difficult, sufferers may turn to less than ideal habits in order to ease the discomfort.  

You should consult your doctor when:

  • Your stress management efforts are not working
  • Your stress is causing or exacerbating serious health issues (E.g. High blood pressure)
  • You’re finding yourself using drugs to cope
  • You’re consuming excessive amounts of  alcohol to cope
  • You’re noticing a steep drop off in productivity or workplace performance
  • You’re experiencing prolonged periods of insomnia
  • You’re experiencing chest pains and/ or rapid heartbeat 
  • You’re experiencing prolonged periods of headache
  • You’re having thoughts of harming yourself or others

One should feel safe to talk to a medical expert at any time when feeling overwhelmed or experiencing any of the above. Professional help can often put you at ease & offer valuable guidance & support.

What are the Causes of Stress?

The exact causes of stress can vary from person to person. Some sufferers may have a high tolerance for stress in comparison to others. Stress can trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response to perceived danger – a response in which hormones such as adrenaline & cortisol are released. This release increases the heart rate, slows digestion & gives the body a burst of energy. Although originally thought to be triggered as a survival instinct, everyday situations such as work place stress or traffic jams can trigger this response in some. 

Common causes of stress can include:

  • Financial difficulties
  • Pregnancy
  • Challenging work environment 
  • Personal health issues or the health issues of a loved one 
  • Unexpected life changes
  • Difficulty in our personal lives 
  • Challenging relationships
  • Upbringing & life experiences

What are the Different Types of Stress? 

Due to its effectiveness as a survival instinct, not all stress can be considered harmful or negative. Different types of stress include:

  • Acute Stress: This is a short-term stress that can be positive or distressing & is the most common type of stress we encounter in daily life.
  • Chronic Stress: Manifesting as a prolonged period of stress that appears inescapable, chronic stress can be brought on by traumatic life-experiences, unhealthy relationships or marriages & extremely taxing occupations.
  • Episodic Acute Stress: A prolonged period of acute stress which can result in uncontrollable anger, panic attacks & exhaustion is known as episodic acute stress.
  • Eustress: Considered a positive form of stress, Eustress can, for example, include the feeling of excitement experienced when skiing or surfing.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a psychiatric disorder brought on by the witnessing or experiencing of a traumatic event.

What are Some of the Complications Associated with Stress?

Extended periods of intense acute or chronic stress can have a serious impact on your health & autonomic nervous system. Unaddressed stress in children & adults can result in complications & additional conditions including: 

Treatment Options for Stress

There is no distinct medical diagnosis for stress, nor is there a single specific treatment for it. Effective treatment for stress requires focusing on developing coping skills & addressing situations. The common triggers of the discomfort associated with stress can often be managed with a combination of:

  • Appropriate support
  • Advice & support for parents, guardians & affected children
  • Prescribed medication including sleep aids, antidepressants & anti-anxiety medication
  • Psychological therapies e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • Complementary & alternative medicine (CAM)

Living With and Preventing Stress

The challenges associated with living with or with a loved one suffering from stress can be mitigated with support & management. Useful measures to help manage stress can include: 

  • Maintaining a Healthy Home Environment: Being organised, maintaining open communication & eating well can all contribute towards fostering a positive atmosphere in the home & help avoid breakdowns & irritability. Certain foods including fatty fish, dark chocolate & berries high in anthocyanins have been shown to improve overall brain health & promote a feeling of well-being.

  • Frequent Exercise: Activities such as hiking or attending a spin class can all help focus the mind & relieve stress. The additional rush of feel-good hormones & burning of extra calories can help shed unwanted pounds & improve self-esteem. 

  • Joining Regional Social Groups: Social experiences can directly impact stress. Joining a support group, for example, enables you to share ideas, make friends & find assistance in challenging times. Knowing you are not alone & reaching out for help can often be invaluable. 

  • Enjoying Relaxation or Mindfulness Techniques: Taking a break or time-out to focus the mind & organise thoughts can significantly help minimise irritability & disrupt negative thought patterns.

  • Staying Organized: By being in control & staying organized, stress build up can be reduced. Managing & being on top of affairs at home or in the work place can help improve self-esteem, reduce negative doubt & avoid conflict.

  • Learning to Recognize the Signs of Burnout: Being able to recognize the early stages of burnout can allow you to focus on root causes & address them promptly. Using a combination of self-help & relevant support, burn out can be a thing of the past & used as a motivation to spur self-improvement & a happy home life.

For more information on managing & preventing stress, get in touch with us.

Meet our doctors from the Psychiatry department

Mohammad Wafeek Eid
Arabic, English
Laila Mahmoud
Arabic, English
Girish Banwari
English, Hindi, Urdu
Asfar Afridi
MBBS,DCP (Ireland). MRC Psych (U.K). MC Psych (Ireland). DMMD (Ireland). H.Dip.Psychotherapy (Ireland). CCST (General Adult Psychiatry)
Pakistani, Irish
English, Hindi, Punjabi, Pashto, Urdu
Hanan Mahmoud Kandil
MBBS, MD, CBT training, Couple Therapy, Master in Psycho Pharmacology Certification
Arabic, English
Sobia Nasim
MBBS, MRCPsych (UK), CCST, MCPsychI (Ireland), DHSM (UK)
English, Hindi, Pashto, Urdu
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