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Understanding feelings of stress

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Feeling stressed at times is normal and, in the right amounts, can help you focus and achieve your goals. Stress is a common and helpful reaction to unfamiliar, unexpected or challenging situations. It also kicks in when you’re feeling scared or threatened. 

When you experience something stressful, you will likely feel a strong physical reaction such as tight muscles, sweating, and increased heart rate. Or you may feel nervous, alert, or restless. These reactions are part of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. This is a survival instinct to keep you alert and help you confront the challenge, escape it, or hide until it goes away.

It’s natural for your stress to increase when you have a lot on your plate. But when stress gets too high or lasts too long it becomes less helpful, and you can begin to feel overwhelmed.

On this page, you'll find services that can help you with what you're going through, plus helpful information around understanding and managing stress.

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Feel so overwhelmed that you can’t cope?

If you're feeling highly distressed and it all feels like too much, you can reach out for support.

Services that can help

If you need some support, or aren't sure where to start, there are a few options available:

  • Try the Head to Health quiz. It can help you understand what you're experiencing and point you to suitable services and resources.
  • Call Head to Health for free on 1800 595 212 for mental health guidance and advice.
  • Try one of the services listed below. There is a wide range of options, no matter the kind of support you’re looking for. You can pick what suits you best.
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What causes stress

Everyone experiences stress in response to different things. Something that may be very stressful for one person may not affect someone else at all. But there are situations that are stressful for most people, including:

  • major life events, such as death of a loved one, moving house, or changing your school or job
  • health issues, such as being diagnosed or living with an illness or caring for someone
  • financial problems, such as being in debt or needing to work overtime to make ends meet
  • relationship or family difficulties, such as a break-up, an argument, or abuse.

Even positive changes can be stressful. For example, you might be excited about a promotion at work, or getting into the sporting finals, and feel stressed about doing well at the same time.

When does stress become a problem?

Stress is healthy when it is short-lived, and it helps to get you through challenges. Some people even rely or thrive on stress to get things done. But when it is not managed effectively, or you are in a stressful situation for a long time, stress can affect your mental and physical health and wellbeing. This could range from burnout or fatigue to serious heart conditions.

You should consider taking extra steps if you often feel:

  • more stressed than usual
  • overwhelmed or that you have little control
  • tired and drained most of the time
  • forgetful or have difficulty focusing
  • irritable or frustrated.

Is it stress, anxiety, or something else?

If your stress feels constant or overwhelming, it may be related to a more serious underlying condition. Anxiety disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), compulsive disorders, and trauma or stressor-related disorders, for example, can all be associated with high levels of stress. Underlying physical health issues such as chronic pain and illness can also impact your overall mood and mental health.

Learn more about mental health conditions and disorders.

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Reaching out for help

If you're concerned that your stress might be a sign of something more serious, or you’re finding it hard to manage, talk to your GP. If you don’t have one, you can use our Find a GP tool.

How to manage stress

Taking steps to look after your wellbeing can help reduce your stress in the long term. If you do find yourself getting stressed or overwhelmed often, there are some steps you can take.

Sometimes you can get stressed about feeling stressed, which can make the situation feel even worse. It can be helpful to work on accepting stress as a useful part of life, and to understand that getting stressed from time to time isn't something to worry about.

It helps to understand the things and events that cause you stress. In times when you can't avoid stressful situations, you can prepare yourself for them. Having a plan on how to cope with the stressful situation can make a big difference to your stress levels and general wellbeing. 

Breaking the problem down and setting yourself small goals to work towards can help make big issues more manageable. If possible, find ways to make stressful tasks or situations a little easier:

  • Can you say no to extra tasks or requests during busy times? 
  • Can you delegate work or household tasks, or prioritise and focus on the important ones first? 
  • Can friends and family help?

Rest and leisure activities refresh your energy and help you to manage the stress more effectively. But when you’re stressed, you may stop making space for them if you feel like you don’t have the time or energy. Scheduling these activities, even when you’re busy, can help ensure they happen.

During times of stress, your body is filled with energy to help you take action. Physical activity provides an outlet for this energy. Taking a few minutes to stretch, walk, or go for a run can be an effective way to release the tension that comes with stress. There are many different ways to stay active.

Talking to someone can be a great way to put things in perspective. Telling someone about your feelings and what’s causing you stress can help you process it logically. It can also give you a chance to ask for help completing tasks that are adding to your stress, such as cleaning or cooking. We have helpful tips on how to start the conversation.

You can't control everything that happens in your life, but there are things you can do to get through tough times. Learn more about coping with unexpected life events.

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Supporting someone else

It can be hard seeing someone you care about going through a tough time. If you're worried about them, it's important to let them know. Check in and see how they're doing. Knowing you care about them might be all they need, or they might need your support to get help. If you're not sure where to start, we have helpful tips on practical things you can do to support someone.

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Looking for more information and services?

You can browse a wider range of resources on Head to Health with our search tool.