What is stress?

Our ancestors were constantly under threat from the elements and predators. We developed an instinctive response to such threats called the ‘fight or flight’ response. Our brains released high levels of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones) which produced the energy needed to either fight for survival or flee to safety.

Today we still encounter situations that our body perceives as ‘threats’ in some way. These could be emotional threats rather than physical ones, but our body can’t tell the difference and either will trigger the same internal reaction.


What causes stress?

The ‘Stress and wellbeing in Australia survey 2015’, conducted by the Australian Psychological Society (APS), showed 35% of Australians reported having a significant level of distress in their lives.

Currently the top five causes of stress in Australia are:

  • Personal finances - 49%
  • Family issues - 45%
  • Personal health - 44%
  • Trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle - 40%
  • Issues with the health of others close to us - 38%

These categories include life events such as marriage, divorce, relocation, trauma and changing jobs. Sometimes a lack of change can also be the cause of stress.

The survey also included a component on social media and stress. It found:

  • 12% of Australians included ‘issues with keeping up with social media networks’ as a source of stress.
  • The issue known as FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) is experienced across all ages including one in two teens and one in four adults.


How does stress affect us?

Not all stress is negative and it affects each of us differently. It is normal to feel ‘the jitters’ before an exam or job interview for example. Some people thrive on the pressure of a tight deadline or budget. The stress of these situations often boosts focus and creativity. However stress that causes us to feel ‘distressed’ can have a big impact on our well-being.

When our stress hormones are not released, they build up and cause issues with our blood pressure, immune system and other body functions. They also disrupt the hormones controlling our emotions which can lead to short term and long term mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.


Physical effects include:

  • Shortness of breath or chest pains.
  • Raised blood pressure.
  • Sleep issues.
  • Digestive issues.
  • Blood sugar imbalances.
  • Decreased immune function.


Emotional effects include:

  • Increased anxiety.
  • Lowered self-esteem.
  • Increased feelings of anger, frustration or helplessness.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or teary.
  • Self-imposed exclusion or isolation from others.


How much is too much?

While a certain amount of stress is normal the breaking point is different for everyone. Common signs that our stress has become out of control include:

  • Using poor coping strategies like excess smoking, drinking or spending.
  • Deteriorating health.
  • Allowing the stress to dominate your life.
  • Taking your emotions out on those around you.

These all add to our stress creating a downward spiral that is difficult to stop.


What can I do to reduce stress?

Where do I start?

Before we can begin to reduce the stress in our lives, we first need to be aware of it and to acknowledge the problem. Sometimes we get so caught up in our daily activities that we don’t see the tension they cause. It may take a relative or friend to help us see the bigger picture.

Once you recognise that there is a problem, step back and assess exactly what has been happening. Look for patterns in your behaviour and see if you can identify your stress triggers. Are you overloaded with work? Are there communication problems in your family? Is a lack of money preventing you from enjoying life?

What can you do?

The next step is to work out which of these issues you have control over. Make a list of the things that are causing you the most distress and start with the things you can control or change right now. Can you delegate at work? Can you revamp your budget or change your environment?

There will always be things that are beyond your control, at least for the moment. It then becomes your choice whether to fight them or learn to accept them. Sometimes it may be helpful to look at the situation from another person’s point of view or to ask why things are done in a certain way. Understanding is the key to acceptance.


When we feel healthy and rested we can cope better under pressure. Looking after our physical health includes getting adequate sleep, eating a balanced diet and balancing work and play.

If you can’t take annual leave consider taking several shorter breaks each year and do something you enjoy such as camping or visiting galleries. Spend time with the people you love.

If it is technology that is stressing you try to limit your use of it. Have ‘tech free’ hours, days or even weeks. When you are online, use your time constructively.

Relaxation and meditation

Some people have forgotten how to relax. Is your mind always buzzing? Does it take you hours to wind down each night? Learn to take time out for yourself even if it is simply going for a walk, playing music or knitting. We all need to know which ‘stress-busting tools’ work best for us so we can draw on them anytime.

Practicing mindfulness is an excellent way to reduce stress. It is the art of being ‘in the moment’. Like a child at play, stop and enjoy the feel of wind in your hair or sand under your toes. Notice the texture and flavour of your food. You can also try other ways to calm your body such as yoga or massage.


Why seek professional help?

Sometimes it can be hard to cope on your own. If you are feeling overwhelmed or confused, it is okay to ask for help. Your GP can suggest a range of physical and mental health options to try.

An experienced counsellor will offer you a safe environment where you can talk about your concerns in privacy and without judgement. They can help you gain some perspective and see patterns that may be occurring with your thoughts and behaviour.

By identifying any unhelpful patterns you can stop them before they get worse and you can also work together to find new, healthier strategies to replace them.


Where to find help

Our True Counsellor Directory lists hundreds of psychotherapists and counsellors from Australia.

Some psychotherapists and counsellors listed in our directory offer counselling over the phone and online in addition to one-on-one consultations. Many also offer workshops and seminars.

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