Mental Health

Updated On: March 31, 2022

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.

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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: 

  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Hair loss
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity & other eating disorders
  • Tooth & gum disease
  • Ulcers & gastrointestinal problems
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Menstrual problems
  • Increased risk of heart attack & stroke

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
MBBS, PhD
Psychiatry
Arabic, English
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Laila Mahmoud
MS, BS
Psychiatry
Egyptian
Arabic, English
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Girish Banwari
MBBS, MD, MRCPsych (UK)
Psychiatry
Indian
English, Hindi, Urdu
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Fadi Maalouf
M.D.(Psychiatry)
Psychiatry
Lebanese
Arabic, English, French
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Rafia Rahim
MBBS, Diploma in Child Health, MRCPsych
Psychiatry
Indian
Arabic, English, Malayalam
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