What is Stress?

Stress is healthy response to challenging or dangerous situations.

Stress is an expected human response to challenging or dangerous situations. Humans have evolved over time to be able to experience a range of stressors and recover from them.

Experiencing stress is part of being alive. A small amount of stress, such meeting a challenge or deadline can actually be helpful. It can lead to increased alertness, energy and productivity. A complete lack of stress can lead to reduced motivation and performance.

Stress triggers off the ‘fight or flight’ response, preparing the body to take action against potential danger. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released, causing the heart rate, metabolism and breathing rate to speed up.

This works well for short-term threats but if the stress response goes on for too long, it can have damaging effects on the mind and body. 

Stress can be caused by our circumstances or by our own attitudes and expectations. In today’s world, some people seem to thrive on stress but many others report high levels of stress with negative effects on their health.

If stress is greater than our ability to cope, it can lead to physical and mental health issues and cause problems with relationships and work.

There are many different ways to manage stress, including identifying your triggers, relaxation techniques, lifestyle changes and seeking support from others. If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress and unable to cope, seek advice from a counsellor or health professional.

Circumstances that are the causes of stress are known as stressors and affect people in different ways.

A situation that causes one person to become over-stressed or distressed may not be a problem to someone else.

Stress can be caused by events or situations that happen to us or by our own thoughts, attitudes or expectations.

The causes of stress include:

Major life events

Negative events (like a death in the family or divorce) and even positive events (like getting married or having a child) can be stressful. Research has shown that some events seem to cause more stress than others.

Routine stress

Routine stress is related to the demands of everyday life and normal responsibilities like work and parenting. Financial issues is one of the leading cause of stress for Australians.

Other causes include:

  • family issues
  • personal health issues
  • trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle
  • concern for the health of others
  • issues in the workplace.

Traumatic stress

Life-threatening or violent situations can trigger an acute stress reaction, but most people recover over time. In a minority of people this can lead to post traumatic stress disorder

According to a recent survey, financial issues were the leading cause of stress for Australians, affecting more than half the population.

However, too much stress can affect mental and physical health, particularly if it becomes chronic (ongoing) or overwhelming. Stress can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behaviour.

If you are experiencing any symptoms of stress, it’s best to see your doctor as it can contribute to health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.


The symptoms of stress and changes with your body that you may notice include:

  • headaches
  • other aches and pains
  • sleep disturbance
  • fatigue
  • upset stomach, diarrhoea
  • high blood pressure
  • weakened immune system
  • muscle tension
  • change in sex drive (male or female)


The symptoms of stress affecting your mind, thoughts and feelings include:

  • anxiety, worry
  • anger, irritability
  • depression
  • feeling overwhelmed and out of control
  • feeling moody, tearful
  • difficulty concentrating
  • low self-esteem, lack of confidence


The symptoms of stress that impact your behaviour include:

  • overeating or undereating
  • outbursts of anger
  • relationship problems
  • alcohol, smoking or drug abuse
  • avoiding people

Chronic and severe stress can increase the risk of developing depression, anxiety, substance abuse or a range of other mental disorders. If you are concerned you may have a mental health issue, visit a health professional.

Everyone encounters stressful situations at times, and learning about managing stress can involve different strategies.

Monitoring stress

The first step is to identify your triggers, or what makes you feel stressed. Notice the warning signs that you are becoming stressed; these may include muscle tension, being irritable or tired.

Changing the stressor

Some stressors can be changed while others may be beyond your control. For example if work is causing your stress you may be able to make changes to your work hours or job duties.

Postpone major life changes such as moving house if you are already stressed.


Regular exercise can relieve tension, relax the mind and reduce anxiety.


Deep breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, yoga and meditation are some techniques that can relax the body and reduce stress.

Spending time with family for friends

Being with people you find uplifting, resolving personal conflicts, and talking about your feelings can help.

Looking after your health

Maintain a healthy diet, ensure you get enough sleep and avoid using drugs and alcohol to cope.

Do things you enjoy.

If you feel unable to manage your stress alone or with support from loved ones, seek help from a counsellor or health professional.

It may not be possible to remove the stress from your life; however, managing your stress may help you to get things done. Below are some ideas for managing stress:

  • Be aware – monitor your levels of stress and ask whether they are helpful or getting you down.
  • Take stock – think about things in your life or pressures you place on yourself that may be increasing your stress.
  • Take charge – deal with unhelpful sources of stress before they build up and become a bigger problem.
  • Make choices – look at areas in your life where you could manage your situation better or change the way you respond.

Some examples of good ways to deal with stress:

  • Take some deep breaths.
  • Talk to someone you trust.
  • Create a stress diary, note down when you feel stressed and why.
  • Have a health check with your doctor.
  • Exercise
  • Eat a healthy well balanced diet
  • Try to avoid smoking, alcohol and caffeine.
  • Make time for things you enjoy.

These are ways to help you bounce back and become more resilient to stress.

Recognising the signs and symptoms of stress will help you figure out ways of coping and save you from adopting unhealthy methods such as drinking or smoking.

You can talk to your doctor about ways to help you bounce back and become more resilient to stress.


Australian Psychological Society (Stress and wellbeing), beyondblue (Reducing stress), Lifeline (Overcoming stress), Mayo Clinic (Stress management)

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Last reviewed: September 2017

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