Promoting mental health, demystifying mental illness, countering stigma and discrimination


What is Stress?

Stress is a term often used to describe an unpleasant experience, an emotional state or a physical condition.
Every part of our lives has the potential to cause us stress. While a certain amount of stress is necessary for our health, too much stress can result in distress. Many things that can stress us are real, but we can 'turn on' the stress response with our thoughts. Managing stress can be complicated because there are different types of stress: acute stress, acute episodic stress and chronic stress.

Acute Stress is the most common type of stress. It comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands of the near future. Acute stress can be pleasant in small doses, but too much can be exhausting. Because it is short term, acute stress does not have time to do the extensive damage associated with long term stress. The most common symptoms are:

  • Emotional distresses - some combination of anger or irritability, anxiety, and depression - the three stress emotions
  • Muscular problems - including tension headache, back pain, jaw pain, and other muscular tensions
  • Stomach, gut and bowel problems - such as heartburn, acid stomach, flatulence, diarrhoea, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Transient over arousal leading to elevation in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, dizziness, shortage of breath and chest pain.

Episodic Acute Stress occurs when someone suffers acute stress frequently. It is common for people with episodic acute stress reactions to be overly aroused, short tempered, irritable, anxious and tense. Often such people describe themselves as having a lot of 'nervous energy'.

The cardiac prone "Type A" personality described by Meter Friedman and Ray Rosenman, is similar to an extreme case of episodic acute stress. Such people have an "excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness, impatience and a harrying sense of time urgency". In addition there is a "free floating, but well rationalized form of hostility, and always a deep seated insecurity."

Another form of episodic acute stress comes from ceaseless worry. Such people are often referred to as "worry warts."

The symptoms of episodic acute stress tend to be persistent tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain, and heart disease.

Treating episodic acute stress requires intervention on a number of levels, generally requiring professional help and taking many months.

Chronic Stress is the grinding stress that wears people away day after day, year after year. Chronic stress destroys minds, bodies and lives. Chronic stress comes when a person never sees a way out of a stressful situation. With no hope, the individual gives up searching for solutions.

The worst aspect of chronic stress is that people get used to it. They forget it is there and live in constant stress as if it were the norm.

Chronic stress can kill through heart attack, stroke, violence, suicide, and perhaps, even cancer. People wear down to a final, fatal breakdown.

The symptoms of chronic stress are difficult to treat and may require long term medical as well as behavioural treatment and stress management.

What are the signs of Stress?

There are many warning signs of stress - some are:

Physical signs:

Headaches; nervous twitches or muscle spasms; excessive sweating; indigestion; pains in the lower back, chest, shoulders, joints or other parts of the body; breathlessness; skin itches or rashes for no apparent reason; clenched fists and/or jaws; fainting; nausea; palpitations.

Mental signs:
Finding it hard to make decisions; memory or concentration problems; excessive worrying; persistent negative thoughts; impaired judgement; hasty decision making; feeling anxious or tense for no explained reason.
Emotional signs:

Irritability; tearfulness for no apparent reason; depression; little enthusiasm; feeling alienated; feeling nervous, apprehensive, anxious; loss of self confidence and motivation; reduced self esteem and job dissatisfaction.

Behavioural signs:
Unable to unwind; accident prone; impaired speech; increased problems at home; poor time management; withdrawal from supportive relationships; low productivity.
What are the effects of long term Stress?
The effects of long term Stress can be very severe and can include:
  • Fatigue and exhaustion - chronically and perpetually tired
  • Depression - chronically and perpetually depressed
  • Burnout - a loss of interest and motivation when previously committed and motivated
  • Breakdown - this may be a physical and/or mental breakdown
  • Obsessive activity - persistent performance of an irrational activity
  • Bipolar Disorder - depression interspersed with periods of euphoria
  • Destructive and self-destructive behaviour - including at its most serious, suicide
  • Irrational behaviour - behaviour that would be illogical in more normal circumstances
How is Stress diagnosed?

Usually people with acute stress of an episodic or chronic nature will be treated by their GP. 
However a GP may, if appropriate, refer a person to a mental health professional for treatment.

How is Stress treated?

Medication combined with psychotherapy and psycho-education as to recognizing the symptoms of stress, identifying the causes and learning stress management techniques are the most usual forms of treatment. It must be remembered that individuals respond differently to treatments and for some the process could take several months to see positive results.

Getting help.

If your degree of stress is such that it is having a negative impact on your wellbeing, discuss the symptoms with your General Practitioner. If appropriate, your GP will make a referral to a mental health professional.

There is a great deal of literature available that can provide advice on managing your levels of stress.

Click here to download a brochure about Stress


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Taranaki Mental Health Sector