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Article: Stress and Mental Health


April is National Stress Awareness Month, in the UK. Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992 in order to bring awareness to the affects, causes and cures for stress in modern times. 

As we observe National Stress Awareness Month, understanding and managing stress is crucial, not just for general well-being but particularly for its profound impact on mental health.

In this article, we explore how stress impacts mental health, particularly for those with existing conditions, examining its biological effects and its role in therapeutic processes.

What is Stress?

Stress is best understood as a state of being that encompasses both physical and psychological responses. We often perceive stress as a mental state, but it primarily begins with a physical response, involving hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, as well as various neurotransmitters. These biochemical changes affect various bodily systems, from our gut health to our cognitive focus.

So rather than saying that stress is a feeling or an emotion, we can more accurately say that stress is a state of being that affects our feelings and emotions.

The Function of Stress

Stress heightens our alertness, energises our muscles for quick action, and prioritises energy for vital functions—known as the ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’ response. While this is crucial in survival situations, in the absence of an immediate physical threat, it becomes counterproductive, interfering with our ability to focus on tasks and manage daily activities effectively.

As we’ve adapted to our environment over thousands of years and particularly the last few hundred, we’ve removed so many threats and dangers from our everyday lives. This is obviously something we can be very grateful for, but it’s also made stress less of a protective force and more of a negative force that causes distress and even harm.

Is Stress Always Bad?

Not at all, stress can have a positive effect too. For example, if you’re trying to build muscle by lifting weights, you’re stressing your body. Lifting weights causes very small tears in your muscle fibres, which results in your body adapting to the stress and increasing your ability to resist that muscle damage in the future—until you increase the weight again, of course.

This kind of controlled stress is what allows us to become resilient to the stressors we’re being exposed to. Our immune systems work in a similar way.

Where stress becomes harmful is in the hormones that are released into the body during a stress response. Our bodies aren’t designed to function with these hormones—primarily adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol—circulating for extended periods. Short bursts can be advantageous; for instance, adrenaline is useful when running the hundred-yard dash but not so much if you’re performing heart surgery.

When our bodies are exposed to these hormones for extended durations and with some regularity, they can cause widespread issues. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can suppress immune function, increase susceptibility to infections, and contribute to weight gain and heart disease. Similarly, chronic high levels of adrenaline can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems like hypertension and heart attacks.

Stress and Mental Health

Now that we understand the basics of stress, we can look at how it directly affects those who live with existing mental health conditions.

Stress can disrupt the progress of individuals who are seeking to improve their mental health. To explain why that is, it’s important to understand what’s going on in the brain while that improvement is taking place.

Mental health is a huge topic, so we’re going to simplify things a bit in the interest of getting to the point. 

Mental health issues arise from diverse causes and can manifest in numerous ways, whether they’re congenital or developed over time due to various factors. What remains consistent is the fact that these mental health conditions adversely affect an individual’s ability to live comfortably and engage with the world optimally.

While therapeutic interventions vary, most of them share a common goal: to shift from maladaptive patterns of thinking and behaviour to those that enhance one’s ability to deal with life’s challenges and experience its joys.

Improving Mental Health

Getting from a state of poor mental health to a state of improved mental health, is often a difficult undertaking. If a particular mental health condition has been persistent for some time, then it becomes even harder. What needs to happen in the brain in order to promote lasting change is very demanding on our mental energy resources.

One of these necessary, but energy consuming tasks is the creation of new neural connections. You can think of neural connections as patterns and pathways that exist in and between brain systems, which dictate how we respond to the world around us. When these connections are maladaptive, individuals can experience the world more negatively. 

Consider someone with claustrophobia who is asked to get into an elevator. Their brain has reinforced neural connections that perceive enclosed spaces as threats. The intense fear response they experience is biologically normal, the brain really does believe that the elevator is a threat to its survival. It’s a normal response, but maladaptive in safe environments. Overcoming such deeply ingrained fears requires gradually rewiring these connections, which is a difficult and energy consuming task. 

Stress as a Barrier

So change is possible, but it isn’t easy, which is where stress comes back into the picture. Changing patterns of thought and behaviour is in itself, stressful. However it is a concentrated and focussed effort that means individuals can persevere through the discomfort and create those new neural connections, leading them toward a new default mental state and better mental health. 

Stress from the outside world adds extra difficulty to the process of improving mental health. Sometimes it can be enough to cause setbacks and affect progress. It’s so important to be able to recognise when we are stressed, what our stressors are and how to mediate or eliminate them where possible.

Recognising Stress

Knowing what kind of effects stress can have on the already difficult task of improving mental health is important, and sets up the need to know how to manage stress effectively.

There are many stress management techniques out there, we’ll take a look at a few of them in a moment. The first thing to understand is when we are actually feeling stressed. Oftentimes stress can build up undetected as a result of small disappointments, frustrations and misfortune. 

There is the obvious stress that comes on rapidly, for example, blowing a tire on the motorway when you’re already running late for an important job interview. But this less obvious type of stress that builds up, can make itself harder to detect and often our bodies are operating in a state of stress before our mind has realised it.

Here are some signs your body is actually in a state of stress that you may not immediately notice:

Physical Symptoms: These can include headaches, muscle tension or pain, fatigue, and changes in sleep patterns. Stress can also manifest through stomach upset or changes in appetite.

Emotional Responses: Feelings of anxiety, irritability, or depression are common emotional responses to stress. You might find yourself feeling overwhelmed or having a sense of losing control.

Behavioural Changes: Stress can lead to changes in behaviour, such as withdrawing from social activities, changes in eating habits, increased use of alcohol or drugs, and exhibiting nervous behaviours like nail-biting.

Cognitive Effects: Difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts, constant worrying, and indecisiveness are cognitive signs of stress. These can affect your ability to make decisions and impact your productivity.

If you feel any combination of these, it is worth pausing a moment and asking yourself the question “am I stressed”. Remember that this stress state affects everything you feel and do in some way. If you can address and ease this state, you might find improvement in areas you didn’t even realise needed it.

Managing Stress

Once you recognise the signs of stress, you can employ various techniques to manage it effectively. Thanks to a concept known as “biofeedback”, we can kind of “hack” our brain’s stress response by convincing it that it’s safe. This conscious effort to replicate the state of calm our brains naturally produce when they’re at ease, is the key to a short term cure for stress. Here are some examples:

Short Term Stress Management

Box Breathing: Also known as square breathing, this technique involves breathing in for four counts, holding the breath for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and then holding again for four counts. This method helps regulate the nervous system and can calm the mind quickly.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): This involves tensing each muscle group in the body tightly, but not to the point of strain, and then releasing the tension. This exercise helps focus on the difference between physical tension and relaxation, which can signal the brain to relax.

Mindful Walking: This can be particularly effective if you feel confined or restless. Focus on each step, the movement of your legs, the touch of your feet on the ground, and the rhythm of your breath. This can ground your thoughts in the present moment and reduce stress.

Guided Imagery: This technique involves closing your eyes and imagining a peaceful scene or setting. This visual mental escape can reduce muscle tension and lower stress in the body by promoting relaxation.

Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing: This involves deep, even breaths from the diaphragm rather than shallow breaths from the chest. This type of breathing can help reset the stress response system by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation.

Long term Stress Management

The best approach is prevention. By building resilience to external stressors and preempting the brain’s tendency to become stressed, we can weaken stress’s influence and enhance our capacity to manage it effectively.

Here are some techniques to incorporate into your daily life, even just one of these will be a tremendous help if applied consistently:

Regular Exercise: Physical activity can help reduce stress by producing endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators. It also helps you get better sleep, which can be negatively affected by stress.

Mindfulness and Meditation: Practices like mindfulness meditation can reduce stress and improve your overall mental health. These techniques help you focus on the present moment and can provide a calming effect on your mind and body. Try sitting comfortably, placing one hand on your belly and the other on your chest, breathing deeply and focusing on the sensation of your hand being moved by your body.

There is no shortage of resources on mindfulness!

Time Management: Effective time management can help reduce stress by making daily tasks less daunting and more manageable. Prioritising tasks, setting realistic goals, and taking breaks can help manage workload and reduce stress. Try starting with a daily planner, then work your way up to planning your weeks.

Healthy Social Interactions: Engaging in social activities can improve your mood and distract you from stressors. Talking to someone about how you feel can also release built-up tension and provide new perspectives on stressful situations. Finding a club for an existing hobby is a great way to talk to people you already have something in common with.

Professional Help: If stress becomes overwhelming and persistent, it may be helpful to speak to a professional. Psychologists or counsellors can offer strategies to manage stress effectively and help you deal with underlying issues that may be contributing to your stress.


As we conclude this exploration during National Stress Awareness Month, it’s clear that stress, while often perceived negatively, plays a complex role in our lives. Understanding how stress functions biologically and its impact on our mental health is crucial, not just for those with existing mental health conditions but for anyone interested in maintaining psychological well-being. While stress can sometimes be a catalyst for growth, it often presents significant challenges that can impede progress in managing mental health conditions.

Effective stress management involves recognizing stress signals early, employing both short-term techniques to alleviate immediate stress and long-term strategies to build resilience. Whether through mindfulness practices, physical exercise, or professional guidance, learning to manage stress is an invaluable skill that can significantly enhance our quality of life.

Jennifer CosslettArticle: Stress and Mental Health