What is Stress? Symptoms and Triggers

See also: Tips to Reduce Stress

Effectively coping with stress, managing stress and finding ways to reduce unnecessary or unhealthy levels of stress are important life skills - skills that everybody needs.

Negative stress, tension and anxiety are extremely common problems in modern life - most people will suffer from potentially dangerous or debilitating symptoms of stress and stress related issues at some point in their lives.

This page (part of a series of stress management pages) provides an introduction or overview to negative stress, together with some of the most common causes of stress and the consequences of inappropriate levels of stress.

Stress is a response to an inappropriate level of pressure.

You may encounter stress from a number of sources including:

  • Personal Stress: which may be caused by the nature of your work, changes in your life or personal problems.
  • Stress in family or friends: which in turn may affect you.
  • Stress in your colleagues: which also may affect you. (See our page: Workplace Stress)

Stress can be described as the distress that is caused as a result of demands placed on physical or mental energy. 

Stress can arise as the result of factors including:


Anxiety is caused when life events are felt to be threatening to individual physical, social or mental well-being.  The amount of anxiety experienced by an individual depends on:

  • How threatening these life events are perceived to be.
  • Individual coping strategies.
  • How many stressful events occur in a short period of time.
See our page: What is Anxiety? for more information.


Tension is a natural reaction to anxiety.  It is part of a primitive survival instinct where physiological changes prepare the individual for ‘fight or flight’.  This sympathetic response, as it is known, results in a chemical Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) being released in the body and causes muscles to tense ready for action. 

Blood vessels near the skin constrict, to slow bleeding if injury is sustained, and to increase the blood supply to the muscles, heart, lungs and brain.  Digestion is inhibited, the bladder relaxes, the heart rate and breathing speed increase, the body sweats more.  The person affected becomes more alert, their eyes dilate and a surge of adrenaline gives rise to an increase in energy.

These responses are extremely useful in situations of physical danger but, unlike for primitive humans, many of the anxieties of modern life are not ones that can be solved by a ‘fight or flight’ reaction or by any physical response.

Modern day stressful situations tend to continue for much longer periods of time and an immediate response does not relieve the anxiety-provoking situation. Therefore, prolonged states of anxiety can lead to symptoms of stress which prevent the individual from returning to his or her normal, relaxed state. Prolonged stress can therefore be detrimental to health and wellbeing.

Physical Signs of Stress

In addition to feeling uneasy, tense and worried, physical sensations of continued stress can include:

  • Palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Tension headaches
  • Aching muscles
  • Trembling or eye twitches
  • Diarrhoea
  • Frequent urination
  • Insomnia
  • Tiredness
  • Impotence

People are often unaware that they are suffering from stress and visit the doctor with symptoms of indigestion, muscle pain, headaches, etc.  Severe stress can lead to panic attacks, chest pains, phobias and fears of being seriously ill.

Continued stress can lead to feelings of lethargy and tiredness, migraine, severe stomach upset and sleeplessness.  As with all such symptoms, you should seek the help and advice of a health care professional.  Once symptoms are recognised as being caused by stress it is possible to control and reduce stress levels. This can be done through learning a number of stress reduction techniques.

See our Avoiding Stress page for more information about stress avoidance and relaxation techniques.

Stress-Inducing Events and Situations

Different people find different events and situations more or less stressful than others, individuals have a range of events or situations that are particularly stressful to them, most people would agree that major events such as losing a job, divorce or money problems would be stressful for anyone.

Many of the most stressful situations in live come as a result of unplanned changes in personal circumstance.

The following list is compiled from the answers given by a large number of people as to how hard it is to readjust to different life changing events.  A high score shows that people find it hard to readjust to that event, which in turn indicates a high stress factor.

Based on: Holmes and Rahe's Life Change Index; Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 1967, Vol. 11, pp. 213-218.

Event: Score out of 100
Death of a Spouse or Partner 100
Divorce 73
Marital Separation 65
Death of a Close Family Member 63
Personal Injury or Illness 53
Marriage 50
Loss of a Job 47
Marital Reconciliation 45
Retirement 45
Change in Health of a Family Member 44
Pregnancy 40
Sexual Problems 39
Addition of a New Family Member 39
Death of a Close Friend 37
Change to a Different Kind of Work 36
Taking on a Large Mortgage 31
Change of Responsibilities at Work 29
Son or Daughter Leaving Home 29
Spouse Starts or Stops Work 26
Starting or Leaving School 26
Trouble with the Boss 23
Change in Residence 20
Taking on a Loan 17
Change in Eating Habits 15
Holiday 13
Christmas 12
Minor Violations of the Law 11


Life changes can have a direct effect on health, either good or bad.  Of people who have a ‘life change score’ of 200-300, half exhibit health problems in the following year.  Of those with a score over 300, 79% become ill in the following year.  The most stressful change is the death of a spouse.  Widowers have a 40% higher death rate than normal and have high rates of illness and depression.

It is not only unpleasant events that can be stressful. Almost any change in circumstances can cause stress - as we readjust. If possible, it is wise to not have too many changes in life at the same time.

In addition to stress being caused by events, certain situations can lead to people feeling stressed; although as mentioned before the degree of stress will depend, amongst other things, on that individual’s coping strategies. 

The environment can make us stressed: for example, noise, crowds, poor lighting, pollution or other external factors over which we have no control can cause us to feel anxious and irritable.

Adjusting to modern-day life can also be a source of stress. We now communicate with people in many different ways, e.g. through the Internet, mobile phones, and various broadcast media, and the expectation of a quick response has increased. 

We also have many more commodities available to us and some people feel an expectation to maintain a certain lifestyle and level of consumerism.  In addition, for many women it is now the norm to manage a full or part-time job and to be the primary carer nurturing a family. All of these changes mean that stress is now unfortunately commonplace in both our personal and professional lives. 

For many people, a personal programme of stress management, focussed on stress prevention as much as relief, is an essential part of modern living.

The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The SkillsYouNeed Guide to Stress and Stress Management

Understand and Manage Stress in Your Life

Learn more about the nature of stress and how you can effectively cope with stress at work, at home and in life generally. The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management eBook covers all you need to know to help you through those stressful times and become more resilient.