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Stress occurs when you feel you are not coping with life.

We all need a little stress to motivate us to achieve or get things done. However, too much stress, particularly over a long period of time, can take its toll on your health and sense of wellbeing. Extreme stress can be so overwhelming it causes physical reactions such as nausea, diarrhoea, over eating and under eating. There are many things you can do to manage stress; it is just about finding the right strategy for you.

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What causes stress?

Change! One of the biggest causes of stress is change. Whether it be normal life events such as pregnancy, childbirth, menopause or unexpected events such as a breast cancer diagnosis, loss of a job or having an accident, these are events that can cause a great deal of stress. However, on a day-to-day basis, what is stressful for one person is not necessarily stressful for another.

Experiences that many people find stressful include:

  • work deadlines
  • poor health
  • holidays and events such as Christmas
  • traffic and crowds
  • technology and social media
  • relationships
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Signs & symptoms of stress

What does stress do to you?

To help you identify if you are stressed, think about what words best describe your experience from the list below.

How you feel:

Anxious, aggressive, apathetic, bored, tired, depressed, frustrated, guilty, irritable, tense, lonely, overwhelmed, unhappy, mood swings

How you think:

Difficulty in making decisions, less creative in solving problems, forgetful, hypersensitive to criticism, poor concentration, negative or anxious thoughts, poor organisation (family, work, other interests) memory problems

How you behave:

Restless, trembling, having accidents, drinking or smoking excessively, incoherent speech, eating too much or too little, nervous laughing, teary, increased use of alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs

What happens to your body:

Increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, dry mouth, sweating, dilated pupils, hot and cold spells, lump in your throat, numbness, butterflies in the stomach, aches, pains, nausea, dizzy, chest tightness, increased frequency of colds and flu, changes in sleeping routine, changes in eating routine

What happens to your health:

Dizziness, faintness, diarrhoea, asthma, chest and back pains, frequent urination, headaches or migraines, nightmares, loss of sexual interest, skin complaints, ulcers, coronary heart disease

How does your stress affect others around you:

Increased arguments with family members, missing work, avoiding seeing friends

If these words describe what you are experiencing lately, it is likely that you are stressed. There are a number of things you can do to lessen the impact of stress on your life.

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Management of stress

Know your stress so that you can start to manage it. There are proven ways of managing stress such as relaxation and meditation. The following table lists effective ways to manage and reduce stress.

Learn what makes you stressed
  • List what you know causes you stress and what you suspect causes you stress – add new causes of stress if they happen
  • Keep a diary of when you feel particularly stressed and see if there are any patterns to suggest something is causing you stress you hadn't realised was a stressor
Identify levels of stress
  • Rate how bad is it on a scale of 1-10
  • The higher the score you give to something, the more likely you need to do something about it
Challenge the strength of your stressors

Once you identify and rate your stressors, try challenging their strength: "I don't need to take that on board", "I can live with that", "I can live without that", "Is this worth getting stressed about", "I can do this" "I don't need to do that".

Get quality rest

It is important to have enough quality sleep because lack of sleep may lead to:

  • reduced alertness
  • shorter attention span
  • slower than normal reaction time
  • poorer judgment

which can all heighten stress levels.

Take a break

Have a mental break if you have been working for long periods – get up from your desk and move around for a few minutes. It will help to prevent stress building.

Take holidays
Plan and book holiday time as a priority.
Slow down
  • Download our weekly activity diary (PDF) to help you structure your priorities and make time for yourself
  • Lighten your load of engagements where possible and give yourself a break.
  • Each day make a list of things you want to get done, put the actions in order of priority and simply cross off the last half
  • Make the top half of your to do list achievable so you don't get disappointed or frustrated
If possible, reduce working hours

Reduce the number of hours you spend at work or even prioritise your work tasks to help lighten your load.


It is important to enjoy a healthy diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and cereals. This maintains your blood sugar and promotes energy.

Reduce stimulants like caffeine

Caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system causing stress: replace a caffeine drink with a glass of water or herbal tea.

Activity and exercise

Increase your physical activity. Moving your body, e.g. walking, increases the flow of feel good chemicals (endorphins) in your body to help you cope.

Quit smoking

Nicotine is a stimulant of the sympathetic nervous system which increases stress. Some smokers say they smoke to calm their nerves, but this is a habit they have turned to for comfort, the chemicals in the cigarette make stress worse.

Share your thoughts
  • Try to discuss the causes of your stress with people who understand your situation because they may be able to help you develop coping strategies
  • See a counselling psychologist if you become overwhelmed

There is a separate webpage on relaxation if you would like to learn more about relaxation techniques.

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at March 2014.

Last updated: 13 January 2020 | Last reviewed: 10 March 2014

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