Stress and mental health

Stress is a natural response to tough events or situations. It’s not always bad. It can even be healthy. But when it’s too much, lasts for too long or affects your daily life, it can impact your mental health and wellbeing.

If for the last two weeks or so you’ve found it hard to relax, or felt overwhelmed, panicky or anxious, your mental health may be at risk. There are things you can do to manage your stress.

Common causes of stress

There are many different things in life that can cause stress. Not all of them are within your control.

Common causes of stress include:

Factors that affect how you manage stress

There are factors that can affect how you cope with stress, regardless of its cause. These could include:

  • where you live and what your day-to-day environment is like 
  • your family situation and your relationships  
  • the needs of people you support or care for
  • your upbringing, culture or religious beliefs
  • your physical health and wellbeing
  • whether you are employed, the type of work you do and the hours involved
  • what coping strategies and support networks you have available.
At the end of my training to become a specialist, the work stresses were significant, and the hours were significant. I certainly wasn't sleeping. I'd spend the night worrying or ruminating about often minor little things.

Read about Geoff’s experience with stress and mental health

Signs of stress and how it affects you

Stress causes the release of stress hormones. These can trigger emotional responses and bring on physical changes. This is known as the 'fight or flight' response. It can help you respond to stressful situations or events. But sometimes, these changes can have a negative impact.

It helps to recognise the signs that stress may be becoming a problem.

You might be feeling

  • Irritable
  • Overwhelmed
  • Anxious
  • Depressed
  • Worried
  • A sense of dread 
  • Tense
  • Lonely

You might be struggling with

  • Racing thoughts
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Difficulty feeling joy 
  • Concentration
  • Being around friends or family
  • Dependence on alcohol or other substances
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Worsening of existing mental health issues

You might notice physical signs of stress such as

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pains
  • Increased heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or aches
  • An upset stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Panic attacks

Check in on your mental health

If any of these examples feel familiar, it might be worth checking in on your mental health.

Check your mental health

How you can reduce stress

Knowing what you can do to help yourself during a stressful time can be difficult. Having strategies to cope with stress helps you to look after your mental health. Below are some ideas that may help.

Ask for support

When you’re feeling stressed, it can make a real difference talking to someone about it. You might start by reaching out to people close to you.

We can also help you to find other support that’s right for you. This could include talking to one of our counsellors or helping you find a mental health professional near you.

Prioritise your wellbeing

Taking care of your mental health and wellbeing can look different to everyone. If you’re feeling stressed, some things to consider are:

  • trying to get enough good quality sleep
  • eating well
  • getting regular activity
  • creating or maintaining a sense of routine.

Creating a personal wellbeing plan can also help remind you to do the things you know work for you.

Learn more about creating a wellbeing plan and looking after your mental health and wellbeing.

Be aware of when stress is affecting you

It’s important to understand when stress is affecting you. This means being aware of the signs of stress that are most relevant to you.

The more you understand these signs, the better you’re able to take steps to cope earlier. You’ll start to identify the triggers that cause unhealthy stress earlier, which gives you a chance to do something about them earlier.

Which might mean approaching the triggers differently so they don’t cause as much stress. Or preparing yourself for the stress that’s to come.

Avoid major life changes

Making major changes in your life can be stressful at any time. If you’re already feeling stressed or anxious, it might be best to avoid or delay significant life changes or decisions.

If it can’t wait, ask someone you trust top support you through the situation.

Protect your mental health at work

Workplace stress can affect your relationships and life outside work. It can also make workplace injury, fatigue and burnout more likely.

Work plays a big role in our lives. And workplace stress can affect your relationships and life outside of work. It can also make workplace injury, fatigue and burnout more likely. There are steps you can take to protect your mental health at work.

Learn more about workplace stress and how to support your mental health in the workplace.

Learn how to manage conflict

Conflict in personal relationships can be a big cause of stress. Learning how to communicate with people  and address problems or conflicts as they arise is important.

Be prepared for stressful events of situations

You can't always predict when stress will arise. But it can help to make a plan based on your past experiences.

  • Start by noting what has caused you stress in the past.
  • Consider whether these were within your control or outside your control. Could you avoid those causes of stress in future. What steps might you take?
  • Identify how you reacted to the stress. What helped? What didn’t help? Were there other things you would like to have tried.
  • Make a plan for what you can do if you find yourself in a similar position in future.

Stress and mental health conditions

Stress and mental health can be closely linked. Too much stress, or prolonged stress, can cause poor mental health. And existing mental health conditions can make it harder for you to cope with stress.

Anxiety and stress

Anxiety can impact your ability to manage stress in daily life. It also causes many of the same physical symptoms as stress.

Learn about anxiety

Depression and stress

If you’re experiencing depression, stress can lead to a worsening of symptoms. You might become more easily overwhelmed by stressful situations or events. And your ability to cope might be reduced.

Learn about depression

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder can happen after you experience a distressing event.
Symptoms can include difficulty relaxing, upsetting dreams or flashbacks of the event, and avoidance of anything related to the event.

Learn more about the signs, symptoms and treatments for PTSD.

Supporting someone else

If someone you know is experiencing stress, you might feel like nothing you can do will help. It's ok to feel that way.

There may be simple and practical ways you can help them to reduce their stress. Just talking with them about how they’re feeling is a great start.

Learn more about talking to someone you’re worried about.

Journey to recovery - personal stories

Stress can play a role in a person’s mental health journey. Learning more about other people’s experiences of mental health can help you better understand your own journey.

Read and watch more personal stories

“I thought I was dying” – Milli describes what a panic attack feels like

In her own words, Milli explains what it was like when she had her first panic attack and how she dealt with it.

“I’m a doctor, I shouldn’t get sick” – Geoff’s experience of work stress and depression

Despite spending decades helping others get better, Geoff’s greatest challenge was taking care of himself.