Laura Simmons, a lecturer in the School of Psychology, talks us through stress, our response to it and how we can learn to cope better with the inevitable stress in our lives. 

Stress is a normal part of daily life and usually occurs if excessive demands are placed on us, and we feel like we cannot cope, or we are exposed to a particularly stressful situation. 

What causes stress?

The things that cause stress, also known as stressors, can vary depending on the individual. Stress can arise from life events, such as getting married and starting a new job. There may also be stressors at home, such as childcare and financial struggles, or at work with a lack of support from management and an intense workload. In someone’s life, there may be several sources of stress that are combined, which may make them feel particularly overwhelmed. 

A person is crouched down on the floor looking extremely stressed

Sometimes we have physical symptoms which indicate when we are feeling stressed. This occurs due to the stress response, a series of physical changes in the body. It starts with the activation of hormones, such as cortisol, which prepares the individual to fight or flee the stressor. The fight or flight response is described in psychology as an evolutionary response to threatening stimuli in our environment and allows us to fight or flee in order to survive. When the stress response is activated, hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline increase blood pressure and heart rate to prepare the individual to take action. 

A man is holding his stomach.

Due to physiological changes in the body, people may experience an upset stomach, headaches and low energy. However, there may be some occasions where stress is not as easy to identify and may disguise itself as an inability to concentrate, tearfulness, worrying, avoiding certain situations and feeling like you can’t enjoy yourself. Therefore, it is important to understand your own, personal reaction to stressful stimuli. 

Why does stress affect some people more than others?

Stress affects people differently, which means that what some perceive as a stressful event or situation, others may not. Individuals may also be more vulnerable to experiencing stress and may have a different threshold to what they can experience before they suffer the negative consequences of stress. Research has highlighted several factors that may determine whether that person experiences stress. For example, people who feel they have control over a situation may experience less stress than someone who feels they have no control. 

stress brain

Problems arise if someone experiences stress over a long period of time (also known as chronic stress). There is evidence to suggest that people are more likely to become ill because, over time, stress exhausts the body and weakens the immune system. Too much stress has been linked to several health outcomes, such as anxiety and depression in addition to heart attacks and strokes. High levels of stress also have an impact on organisations, with research suggesting a relationship between higher levels of stress and sickness absence i.e. when a person is absent from work due to illness. 

Coping with stress relates to several different strategies that people may use to reduce the amount of stress they experience. Research suggests that these coping mechanisms can be influenced by an individual’s personality and previous experiences of coping. There are several coping strategies that you can use to help cope with stress, whether this occurs at work or at home.

Seek social support – this can be as simple as talking to your manager at work, your partner or your friends about the event or situation that is causing you stress 

  • Breathing exercises – try the 4-7-8 method, inhale for four, hold for seven and exhale for eight 
  • Organise your time – if you feel overwhelmed by tasks, try making a list, prioritising your tasks and make a schedule 
  • Focus on your hobbies – read a book, take a walk or go to the gym 
  • Enjoy the outdoors - Find your local park and walk, wander around your town centre. Enjoy the scenery that surrounds you.  

As with stress, developing coping strategies is based on the individual, and what works for one person may not work for another. Stress is also a natural part of our daily lives, and our aim is not to eliminate it but to manage it so that it doesn’t have a negative effect on our wellbeing. 

Laura Simmons is a Lecturer on Psychology BSc at The University of Worcester. Psychology is Available as Forensic Psychology BSc, Clinical Psychology BSc, Occupational/Business Psychology BSc, Sport and Exercise Psychology BSc and Counselling Psychology BSc