I'm feeling stressed

Stress affects everyone. We all have so many demands on our time and energy - work, children, home, caring for relatives, exams, relationships, bills, money worries. It is easy to feel stressed and overwhelmed at times.

Some stress can be good. It can help us feel alert and motivated. But when it feels like demands are getting too much and we start to struggle, stress can have a big impact on our health and how we are feeling.

​What is stress?

The word 'stress' is commonly used to mean the overwhelming feeling of anxiety we experience when problems or pressures are just too great and we don't think we can cope.

A moderate level of stress can be useful in situations where we need to perform well such as working to a tight deadline or competing in a competition.

This Stress curve shows how some stress can help us work at our best but also what happens when demands become too much.

The Stress curve

The point at which we might start to struggle is very personal - everyone's perception of what is stressful is different and everyone has different problems and demands.

Watch this animation of the 'stress bucket' - the water being poured into the bucket represents stress. Too much stress and the bucket fills up and overflows.


If we can make some holes in the bucket - by finding helpful ways of coping - we can stop this from happening and release some of the stress from building up.

So what happens when we reach the point when our 'bucket' starts to overflow? Our brains register the level of stress and think we are under attack. It then responds by triggering a primitive human response known as 'Flight or fight'.

The 'Flight or fight' or 'threat' response evolved millions of years ago when early humans often met sudden life-threatening dangers. Faced with a saber-toothed tiger being able to run away or fight was then vital to our survival.

As soon as the response is triggered hormones called adrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream. These hormones increase blood pressure to help us react more quickly and create more energy for running. They also shut down the digestive, immune and reproductive systems which are not necessary during a life or death situation.

The body then goes through a number of changes to get ready to either run away or fight. Download the 'Fight or fight' sheet to find out what happens to the body during the response.

Flight or fight response

These physical changes can affect how we behave and can affect our health - a person experiencing the response may:

  • Find it difficult to either relax or concentrate on anything but the supposed danger.
  • Appear more aggressive or impulsive.
  • Over-react, start looking for 'threats' or hidden dangers or feel 'under attack'.
  • Breathe deeper or shallower and feel light-headed.
  • Have difficulty sleeping and notice a decrease in sex drive.
  • Find it more difficult to take in or remember information.
  • Pick up more colds and infections and be more likely to develop long-term health problems like heart disease.
  • Drink more alcohol to try to relax.

We no longer face the threat posed by wild animals but this response can still be life-saving when meeting real dangers like, for example, stepping in front of a speeding car.

Modern stresses are not usually life-threatening, however. They may be big life changes like divorce, redundancy, getting married or having a baby or major emotional upsets like the death of a close friend or relative. Or they can be more day-to-day hassles like:

  • Getting stuck at work when you need to pick the children up from school.
  • Revising late into the night for an exam.
  • Needing to buy a new washing machine when your rent is due.
  • Being told of a problem with your benefits.

Unfortunately, these everyday situations can still trigger the same automatic response. Our bodies react as if we are in real physical danger.

What are the signs of stress?

Stress can change the way we feel and behave. Someone with high levels of stress may show some of the following signs:

  • Feel anxious, dizzy, tense or 'on edge'.
  • Get easily upset or angry.
  • Deeper or shallower breathing.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Churning stomach.
  • Difficulty concentrating on a task or tackling a problem that is causing the stress.
  • Stiff, tense shoulder muscles.
  • Sweating.
  • Decrease in sex drive.
  • Loss of appetite or comfort eating.
  • Difficulty relaxing or sleeping.
  • Find it hard to take in or remember information.
  • Withdraw from people or usual activities and hobbies.
  • Drink more alcohol or smoke too much.
  • Headaches, migraines, sickness, diarrhoea, panic attacks or hyperventilation (rapid breathing).
  • High blood pressure or stomach problems like irritable bowel syndrome.

What are the main causes of stress?

Big life changes, major emotional upsets, illness and difficulties at home or at work are all factors which can cause stress. Someone is particularly likely to feel stress if they are experiencing a build up of different problems.

Consider what stress you may be under. Take particular care if you are experiencing, or have recently experienced, one or more of the following:

  • The illness or death of a close friend, partner or relative.
  • A serious illness or diagnosis.
  • Having a baby.
  • Getting married.
  • Moving house.
  • Relationship problems, break-up/divorce.
  • Crime including hate crime, abuse or violent crime.
  • Housing, debt and money worries.
  • Family problems or disagreement with family, friends or neighbours.
  • Examinations.
  • Legal problems.
  • Redundancy, long-term unemployment, fear of losing job or looking for a job.
  • Major changes or problems at work or college (including difficult relationships, bullying or harassment, working in a hostile work-place, starting a new job).
  • Increased pressure at work and long working hours.
  • Living with an abusive, unpredictable or violence partner or family member.
  • Problems with gambling or alcohol/drugs use.
  • A jail sentence.

Are some people more likely to experience stress?

Personality can play a big factor in experiencing stress. What may be stressful to one person may seem a positive challenge to another person or just not a matter of concern to another.

Healthcare practitioners have identified the following set of characteristics which can make it more likely for someone to experience stress. If you recognise a majority of these characteristics take particular care of your levels of stress:

Feels pressure to perform

  • Very competitive and driven.
  • Everything needs to be perfect.
  • Very work-focused – few social interests.

Feels pressure to complete

  • Impatient – doesn't like to wait or take pleasure in doing something at leisure.
  • Tendency to take work home and finds getting a work/life balance difficult.
  • Needs to get everything finished.

Difficulty waiting or relaxing

  • Likes to do more than one thing at once.
  • Talks quickly and does everything at speed.
  • Never relaxes – always on the go and can't sit still.
  • Always early for appointments.
  • Interrupts other people when they are trying to talk.

Difficulty managing feelings

  • Doesn't express feelings.
  • Impatient with others' feelings.

Other factors may make someone more likely to feel anxious and worry about problems or perceived problems:

  • Early experiences (particularly under the age of three) - children who experience fear of danger more often, don't feel protected or encouraged or who experience disruption like illness, parents' separation or moving schools – are more likely to feel anxiety as adults. A child who sees a parent constantly worrying may learn that behaviour and worry more as an adult.
  • A traumatic life experience - when someone is exposed to a life-threatening danger (especially during childhood) or experiences like hate crime or bullying.
  • Stressful lifestyles - people who work under a lot of pressure for long hours or work in hostile work places or experience fear and difficulties at home.

What is work-related stress?

You can understand more about work-related stress and what causes it, and learn some coping strategies in the Work issues section.

Is it possible to experience both depression and stress or anxiety?

Yes. Problems like depression, stress, panic, anger and anxiety are not always experienced alone.

It is quite common, for example, to experience anxiety and depression at the same time. Feeling low or depressed can make someone feel more anxious and worry more; and experiencing anxiety or stress can sometimes lead to feeling low or depressed.

Everyone is different – explore more areas of this section to help you understand more fully why you may be feeling unwell.

How can I help myself?

Find out how you can start to tackle stress and learn helpful tools and techniques which can help you feel better soon.

Take control of stress

Learn helpful coping strategies

Look after your physical health

Take time to relax

Be mindful

How could IAPT help me?

Leeds Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) supports people experiencing common mental health problems such as anxiety, stress and depression. Leeds IAPT is run by Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust and provides assessments and a range of talking treatments.

Read more about IAPT and how to self-refer.

When do I need to talk to my GP?

It is normal to feel low or have feelings of anxiety from time to time particularly when experiencing a life change or big event.

If you have been feeling low or very anxious and this is having an impact on your day-to-day life, you should consider going to see your GP.

Read more about when you should talk to your GP and how to prepare for a GP appointment.

Find support

Tools and apps

Tools and apps

NHS Choices Moodzone – an online resource useful information, interactive tools, and videos to support you on your way to feeling better.

Silver Cloud - a safe and secure online space offering personalised programmes to help people experiencing a range of mental problems (available via self-referral to Improving Access to Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT).

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