Mental Health Awareness Week – What is stress?

This week it is Mental Health Awareness Week and the focus this year is on stress. In the first of two articles, Pam Palfreyman, Cygnet’s Occupational Health Group Lead, looks at what stress is, work-related stress and signs and symptoms of stress. Check back later this week for a follow up from Pam, looking at strategies for how you can manage your own stress levels.

Pam writes:

Work is generally good for people if it is well designed:

  • It contributes to our happiness and self-worth
  • Gives us a sense of identity
  • Helps us build self-confidence
  • Helps us build self–esteem
  • Rewards us financially

But work can also be a great source of pressure. Pressure can be a positive and a motivating factor, it can help us achieve our goals, spur us on to solve a difficult problem or challenge us to go the extra distance to achieve that goal. However, excessive pressure over a prolonged period of time can cause you to feel stressed, it can make you ill both physically and mentally.

Did you know?

  • 1 in 6 employees in Britain will experience depression, anxiety or problems relating to stress at any one time?
  • In 2017 526,000 employees experienced workplace stress and 1.25 million working days were lost due to work related depression, anxiety and stress.

So what is stress?

  • Stress is nothing else but your body’s response to mental or emotional pressure
  • Stress is a natural reaction when this pressure becomes excessive
  • Stress is not an illness but if it becomes excessive and/or prolonged, mental and physical illness may develop
  • Anyone can suffer from work related stress, no matter what work they do

Sources of stress

Not all sources of stress are negative, even happy occasions can cause increased pressure in our lives. Some of the common sources of stress include:

  • Leaving home, getting married, having children
  • Moving house
  • Health scares or physical illness
  • Divorce
  • Coping with uncertainty
  • Late nights, lack of routine
  • Poor diet, dehydration
  • Excessive alcohol or drug misuse

Work related stress

There are times when pressures at work can become stressful, some factors to consider if you are feeling stressed include:

  • Long hours and shift work
  • Increased work load
  • Coping with a promotion
  • Poor relationships with colleagues
  • Lack of control or job insecurity
  • Lack of job satisfaction, boredom or isolation
  • Fear of violence, bullying or harassment
  • Problems with the working environment (such as noise, temperature, overcrowding and poor facilities)

Signs and symptoms of stress

The key signs of excessive pressure or stress can be split into 3 main categories:

1. Emotionally you may experience:

  • Increased irritability, anxiety & negative emotions
  • Loss of confidence
  • Tearfulness or helplessness
  • Lack of interest in others or in life

2. Behaviourally you may experience:

  • Loss of concentration
  • Increased intake of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs
  • Difficulty in remembering things

3. Physically you may experience:

  • Constant tiredness
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Back pains, tension, headaches, palpitations
  • Sexual problems
  • Sleep & gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease

What happens to our bodies when we are stressed?

  • Immune system – if we are under prolonged stress, our immune system can be compromised making us susceptible to frequent infections, even viral illnesses like the common cold and flu will be prevalent
  • Musculoskeletal system – stress affects our muscles. They tense up when we are stressed. This is the body’s way of guarding itself against injury. With taut muscles, tension-type headaches are very common
  • Respiratory system – the heart beats faster when one is under stress. This in effect can trigger other conditions like asthma or panic attacks
  • Cardiovascular system – continued levels of high stress can have adverse effects on the heart and the other organs related to it. These could lead to problems with blood pressure, having adverse effects on other organs of the body

It is important to understand and recognize your own unique signs of stress, and learn how to manage the signs and symptoms before they impact on your health and wellbeing. In my next article I’ll look in more detail at how to help you manage your own stress levels.

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