Stress, in many ways, is our friend. It's part of our programming, that automatic fight or flight response that helps us dash for cover when we spot danger, or knuckle down to get jobs done. It's all thanks to that surge of hormones - including adrenaline and cortisol - our bodies produce when the brain registers it's time for action.
But there are also times when stress is bad. When we're screeching, jaw clenched, that somebody is really "stressing us out", for instance, or yelling at everybody to get the heck out of the kitchen as we're juggling what feels like five billion trays in the oven and, any minute now - never mind the gravy - we're going to boil over.
That's stress when it's being a bit of a pain in the proverbial, but that's still very normal, and actually, quite helpful for getting stuff done. Once that irksome person's backed off, or the grub's on the table, your arteries are no longer bulging.
So when is stress a health concern? We've all seen the headlines; it's the modern epidemic, costing UK industries billions. Some 91 million working days are lost annually to mental ill-health, and half of these are related to stress and anxiety. This is just one of the sobering statistics that is being highlighted this Wednesday for National Stress Awareness Day.
And work isn't the only factor; events and circumstances in somebody's personal life, and other health conditions, for example, can also contribute.
While certain things - like house moves, redundancy and exams - are recognised as being 'stressful', there's no way of measuring how much stress they'll cause and how this might affect one person from the next.
Stress is really a problem when it becomes a constant. When those adrenaline and cortisol surges are happening so frequently, and calm is not being adequately restored between 'triggers', that you eventually end up being in a constant fight-or-flight state.
As a result, it can seem like your "stressed out" threshold gets lower and lower, and little demands become increasingly challenging.
It can manifest physically too, suppressing the immune system and wreaking havoc with your sleep and digestive system. Research suggests it can even affect memory function, and make us more sensitive to physical pain.
"Stress affects everyone differently, and what's stressful for one person may not be for another," says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind. "However, there are some common symptoms to look out for."
Mood and character changes
When struggling with stress, it's usual to feel you've lost your patience, and find yourself being irritable and snappy. "Long-term stress can increase irritability, aggression and anxiety," says Mamo. "It can lead to depression, poor concentration, and someone experiencing stress at work, for example, may struggle with seemingly simple tasks, including motivation, punctuality and decision-making. They may behave differently - for example, a colleague who's normally outgoing and chatty might become quiet and withdrawn."
Perhaps the clearest point that you've reached your stress tipping point is that desperate anxiety where you simply can't handle any more on your plate. You feel at bursting point, and any additional demands sent your way - no matter how small they seem to others - are going to tip you over the edge or make you explode. Things you'd normally be able to handle now make you teary and afraid that you can't cope.
We're programmed to worry - it keeps us safe and functioning. But when you're suffering with stress, it's not unusual to find you're suddenly worrying much more about everything, and possibly even having more negative thoughts than usual about things that may happen to you in the future - which may be a symptom of anxiety too.
Sometimes, though we may not even be aware we're doing it at first, stress can make us change our behaviours. This might be disengaging with hobbies, avoiding socialising, losing interest in things and neglecting physical appearance. Sometimes people might start drinking more, using drugs or binge-eating, for example, too.
"Stress makes it incredibly difficult to 'switch off' our brains, hence it is difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep," says Mel Wakeman from Birmingham City University's Faculty of Health. "Our normal sleep cycle gets disrupted, so we do not enter the essential deep phases of sleep. It's a vicious cycle, as less sleep means we are less able to cope with everyday stresses."
Poor sleep inevitably leads to feeling drained the next day, but stress hormones can add to daytime fatigue too. "When we're stressed, our body is wired and this means our metabolism's running at a faster rate. This will have the effect of draining our energy stores, hence we feel tired," adds Wakeman.
"Sometimes adrenalin can trigger our heart to beat very fast. It can be alarming and make you feel quite odd (pounding chest, heavy legs, light-headed)," says Wakeman.
Palpitations - being suddenly more aware of your heartbeat or feeling your heart's racing, pounding or fluttering in your chest and throat - can be very frightening, but it's a common symptom in stress and anxiety and, most of the time, harmless. If you're concerned, get it checked with your GP.
Feeling light-headed and dizzy can happen alongside palpitations, possibly as a symptom of a panic or anxiety attack. It can also happen on its own.
"Vasovagal syncope is most commonly associated with emotional stress and the impact it has on the nervous system," notes Nuffield Health physiologist Matthew Horsley.
"Triggers include perceived stimuli, like the sight of blood for instance, which cause an increase in parasympathetic drive and subsequent drops in blood pressure and/or heart rate, thereby momentarily disrupting blood supply to the brain."
Weight loss or gain
Some people gain, while others lose weight when they're stressed. This may be linked with a loss of appetite, or comfort eating, and may also be due to metabolic factors associated with stress-induced hormonal changes.
"Stress can also increase muscle tension, most commonly experienced via contraction of muscles in the upper limbs, neck and around the skull," says Horsley. This can contribute to an increase in general aches and pains, as well as feeling 'hunched' and tight.
Muscle tension is also a factor in headaches, as are the increased levels of stress hormones. "These affect brain chemistry and lead to less control over blood vessel regulation," says Horsley.
"This leads to inflammation and the associated pain of headaches, alongside a reduced capacity to process sensory information, such as sound and light."
Being run down, or existing health conditions worsen
"Prolonged stress is linked with higher levels of cortisol and we know this chemical reduces the activity of our immune system, making it more likely we pick up bugs," says Wakeman.
You may find you take longer to shake off colds and infections, and they wipe you out more. Plus, stress can worsen symptoms, or 'trigger' episodes of pre-existing health conditions, particularly things like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), psoriasis, or autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
Neil McTeggart (34) is part-owner of the Iron Fit Gym in the Titanic Quarter. He lives in Belfast with his wife, Jennifer. He says:
Going to the gym gets you away from the daily grind and lets you wind down. Exercise can stress the body too so instead of five hard work outs a week have two days where you work on mobility and movement instead of lifting big weights.
I see a lot of people in the gym, particularly women, going too hard at their diet and being obsessive about their body shape.
It’s a good idea when you go to the gym to have multiple goals. It shouldn’t just be about losing weight, it should also be about being to do a chin up or lifting more than you lifted the week before.
A good analogy is to think of a bath tub with a number of different taps around it. Each tap represents something different in your life such as work, family, the gym and so on. If all the taps are on full then the bath will overflow. The idea is that if your work tap is on full then you should relax your gym tap for a while so you don’t get overwhelmed.”
For more information about the Iron Fit Gym go to www.facebook.com/ironfitni
Claire Ferry (39) is an Iyengar yoga teacher and lives in Belfast with her husband, Geoffrey. She says:
Stress comes from many sources so different moves work for different people. Some might find that lying quietly and doing something restorative might be beneficial in reducing anxiety. Others will find they need a boost and moving their body to get chemicals and endorphins flowing will help them build strength and confidence.
The process of yoga is about paying attention to your body and what it’s doing at any particular moment. Because you’re doing that you don’t have the time to think about the other stuff rattling around in your brain so it can be very focusing.
I’ve lost count of how many people who have come to me with sore shoulders and neck because they sit hunched over a desk all day. These can also cause tension headaches — relaxing your shoulders and rolling them round can help to release the tension.
One of the most basic things you can do while you’re at work is to think about your posture. Sit up straight.
Keep your feet flat on the floor and keep your hips above your knees. That will put your pelvis in the right direction for your spine to extend and you can roll the shoulders back and loosen your arms.”
Jane McClenaghan (41) is a nutritional therapist and cookbook author and lives in Belfast with her partner, Neville. She says:
The first thing to do to combat stress is to work to get sugar out of your diet. Sugar can cause blood sugar spikes and lows which in turn kick off our adrenal glands. That will make us feel more anxious. People have a tendency to sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit to relax and it’s exactly the wrong thing to do.
Caffeine is also something to stay away from because too much can trigger a stress response. I encourage people to drink green tea instead as it contains L-theanine which changes your brainwaves and helps reduce anxiety and stress. Green tea also has much less caffeine than coffee.
Busy people can often skip meals but going too long doesn’t help anxiety levels. It means they’re missing out on fuel and energy and again adrenaline will kick in instead. A higher protein diet is very good for stress and you can add a little sea salt to your food — not ordinary table salt. We lose a lot of electrolytes when we’re stressed and we can get that back from sea salt with has a good mineral balance.”
Amanda Brady (54) lives in Holywood and is a lecturer in complementary therapies at Belfast Metropolitan College. She says:
There are a lot of oils on the market these days — many of which are pre-blended for stress. The most common oil used is lavender for calming properties. Citrus oils are also good if you need a lift — you can burn these or put them on your wrists.
One of the best things for self-help is acupressure. You can do something as simple as finding the pressure point on the inside of your wrist and gently circling it in a clockwise motion with your finger or thumb. This is a point on the percardium meridian and you often see bracelets with nodules in them that sit on those points as cures for seasickness. It’s used for calming anxious people and slows everything down.
A basic shoulder massage can be really effective too, especially if you both breathe slowly together. Just being touched by someone else can be therapeutic — when someone is upset the first thing you do is to put your arm around them to comfort them. Learning massage is something you can pass on to your friends and family.”