What is stress and how do we cope with it?

Published on: 12th April 2021

What is stress?

Stress is a concept that most people will be familiar with. It’s likely that all of us have felt stressed at some point in our lives. What actually is stress and why do some of us seem to cope better with stress than others?

In brief, stress is our body’s natural response to perceived pressure or threat. We become stressed when the demands placed on us exceed our ability to cope with the situation. Our brain interprets these demands and sends a signal to our autonomic nervous system. This then activates the acute stress response (more commonly known as “fight or flight”). This in turn is responsible for a number of short term physiological changes. For example, increased heart rate and blood pressure, breathing faster, feeling hot and sweaty, feeling tense, and experiencing a dry mouth. This survival mechanism is innate in most animals and is meant to prepare us to face the potential threat. We will usually notice feeling stressed when the acute stress response is activated frequently and for a prolonged period of time.

We can end up feeling stressed due to a single significant challenge or a number of small challenges. Stressful situations usually involve some sort of change, challenge, conflict or uncertainty. Our individual differences mean that all of us will interpret similar situations in a different way. An obstacle may be stressful to some people, whilst others might not see it as a challenge at all. This does also mean that some people are more prone to feeling stressed than others.

Some of the most common stressors include:

  • Relationship breakdown or difficulties
  • Poor physical health
  • Money problems
  • Work difficulties or unemployment
  • Changing jobs or starting a new job
  • Interpersonal conflict or difficulties
  • Change in personal circumstances
  • Moving home
  • Changing schools or starting a new course

Most people will experience some physical, mental and behavioural changes when dealing with stress.


Physical changes Mental and emotional changes Behavioural changes
  • Headaches
  • Racing heart and chest pains
  • Problems with sleep
  • Feeling tense
  • Changes to appetite
  • Nausea
  • Constant fatigue
  • Weakened immune system
  • Problems with concentration
  • Constant worrying
  • Feeling low
  • Indecisiveness
  • Feeling tearful
  • Poor memory
  • Being irritable with others
  • Avoiding people and places that we associate with stress
  • Reduced activity levels
  • Not doing things for ourselves
  • Not looking after ourselves

Whilst short term stress is not dangerous and can actually help us perform better, feeling stressed for prolonged periods of time can left us feeling burnt out and unable to cope. Long term stress is also a contributing factor in the development of a number of physical and mental health issues. For example, heart disease, digestive problems, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety disorders.

How to cope with stress

Considering the above, it is important for us to be able to recognise when we are feeling stressed and to know what we could do about it. Individual factors do mean that we all find different coping mechanisms useful, but here are some of the most effective ones:

Identifying our own triggers

Reflecting and recognising why we feel stressed can help reduce the stress, as well as prepare for stressful situations that may arise in the future.

Being more organised and problem solving

This is particularly helpful when we feel overwhelmed or face a few challenges at once. Identifying what we could do to tackle the issues and creating a plan of action can help us feel more in control, therefore reducing the amount of pressure we are under. It can also help us to resolve the triggering situation, which would then take away the stress.

Ensuring we take the time out for ourselves

It’s normal to slightly neglect ourselves when we are under a lot of pressure, so reflecting on what we are currently doing and taking the time to notice changes in our behaviour can help us bring back the balance in our activities. It’s really important to ensure that we continue attending to our hobbies and do things for ourselves to boost our mood and help us relax. Whilst this doesn’t work on resolving the stressful situation, it helps us feel better prepared to deal with it and stops us from feeling run down and overwhelmed.

Physical exercise

Exercise helps us relieve some of the tension that naturally builds up when we feel stressed, whilst also releasing endorphins (the happy chemical in our brains). This will then reduce the impact that long term stress has on our bodies, making us feel better prepared to deal with the challenges ahead.


Various relaxation exercises can also help us relieve some of the tension in our body and some of the negative effects of long term stress.

Having a regular sleep cycle

Trying to tackle the changes to our sleep to ensure that we are well rested and give our body and brain time to recover and naturally deal with the physical effects of stress.

Maintaining a healthy diet

Eating the right types of food helps our body deal with the challenges that we may face and eating regularly throughout the day is also important. This ensures that our body produces energy throughout the day.

Cutting down on caffeine and alcohol

Caffeine mimics some of the physical effects that stress has on our body, so whilst it can temporarily make us feel more alert and productive, in the long term it can become a part of the problem and lead to feeling more run down. Alcohol can help us relax in the short term but it is a depressant. In the long term it can become a part of the problem, making us feel lethargic and taking away our natural ability to cope with the pressures, whilst also weakening our immune system further.

Talking to others about how we feel

Opening up and talking to those around us about the problems we face can help us feel less alone and normalises what we’re going through. Other people may also be able to help us with some of the challenges or offer emotional support.

Setting goals

This helps us identify what we would like our lives to be like, allowing us to focus on the bigger picture. Focusing on a long term goal can help alleviate some of the stress that is caused by current difficulties. However, it is really important to ensure that the goals we set for ourselves are achievable. Otherwise they can increase the feeling of hopelessness and leave us feeling even more unable to cope.


One in four of us will experience a common mental health problem such as anxiety, stress or depression at some point in our lives. steps2change is a free NHS service that provides a range of evidence based talking therapies. Read more about how we can help here.

Other useful websites for advice on dealing with stress