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Managing stress – why it’s important for your health

We all know that feeling of pressure called stress. It can happen when you’re stuck in traffic and running late, when you’re juggling too many demands on your time or grappling with work or family problems – or all of these. Some stress can be energising – it can give you an extra push to meet a deadline or a challenge. But too much ongoing stress can leave you feeling burnt out, affecting both your physical and emotional health.


What happens when you’re stressed?

Your body can react to stressful situations with what’s called the fight or flight response. Your body goes on red alert to cope with what the brain believes is a threat. The trouble is your brain can’t tell the difference between a bad day at the office and someone who’s trying to snatch your wallet.

Either event can trigger the release of stress hormones causing changes in your body that make it easier to fight or run, which is helpful if you need to fend off an attacker. But when chronic stress in your life is keeping your fight or flight system switched on for a lot of the time, your body becomes overexposed to stress hormones.


How can stress affect your health?

Each of us reacts differently to stress. Some react more to stressful events than others – and what’s stressful to one person may leave someone else unruffled. 
But an overload of stress can affect your mental and physical health in a number of ways, often by making existing problems worse, according to clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Edelman.

  • Increased anxiety. Stress creates anxiety and can increase the risk of panic disorder, an anxiety disorder problem which causes recurrent panic attacks. For people who tend to worry excessively about things – who may have generalised anxiety disorder – stress can increase anxious thoughts.
  • Depression.  Stress and depression are different conditions but ongoing stress can increase the risk of developing depression.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse, binge or comfort eating. All of these can be exacerbated by stress.
  • Lowered immunity. There’s still a lot to learn about the links between stress and the immune system but research so far suggests that the ability to fight off infection can be lowered by ongoing stress. 
  • Worsening symptoms of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). It’s thought that brain chemicals can affect nerves in the bowel causing changes to bowel function. Some evidence also suggests there are links between IBS and the immune system which in turn can be affected by stress.
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Although inactivity and being overweight are the main risk factors for this kind of diabetes, some evidence suggests that general emotional stress, anxiety and depression are also linked to an increased risk of this condition.

Can too much stress lead to heart disease?

Although there’s evidence that people with depression have a higher risk of developing heart disease, it’s still not clear whether stress is a risk factor too, according to Dr Edelman. The National Heart Foundation believes stress may contribute to heart disease indirectly by increasing the risk of unhealthy habits like smoking and overeating.


How do you know if stress is becoming a problem?

Dr Edelman says that the warning signs are feelings of being overwhelmed, or as if you’re not coping a lot of the time. You may also experience symptoms such as headaches, neck, shoulder and backache, disturbed sleep, fatigue, heart palpitations, changed appetite, stomach upset, reduced ability to concentrate, anxiety and low mood.

“It’s good to seek help sooner rather than later,” says Dr Edelman. “If everyday stress is interfering with your ability to work or have good relationships with your family and friends for two weeks or more, it’s time to do something about it.”


Where to get help

For more information on reducing stress in your everyday life, see Stress-busting – finding what works for you

You may want to discuss any concerns with your GP. They can also refer you for professional help in finding better ways of coping with stress.

There are also 24-hour telephone support services such as Lifeline (13 11 14) and organisations such as beyondblue that may be able to help you.


Further Information

Beyond Blue

Australian Psychological Society



National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). Irritable Bowel Syndrome. [online] Bethseda, MD: NDDIC. 2007 [accessed 24 May 2011] Available from:

American Psychological Association (APA). Stress weakens the immune system. [online] Washington, DC: APA. 2006 [accessed 24 May 2011] 

Bunker SJ Colquhoun DM Esler MD et al. "Stress" and coronary heart disease: psychosocial risk factors - National Heart Foundation of Australia position statement update. Medical Journal of Australia. 2003; 178(6): 272-276.

Pouwer F Kupper N. Adriaanse MC. Stress and diabetes: Does emotional stress cause type 2 diabetes mellitus? A review from the European Depression in Diabetes (EDID) Research Consortium. Discovery Medicine. 2010 Feb; 9(45): 112-118.

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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