Westspace Factsheet – Stress

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  • Introduction
  • Causes
  • Effects of Stress
  • Stress Management
  • Common Questions



Stress is commonly understood to be a result of being under too much pressure. The causes for stress are as varied as the different ways that stress affects each individual and the ways in which people cope with their stress.

Some stress may help your body to prepare for certain challenges, so it’s probably impossible to live without any stress. But too much stress can cause physical and emotional difficulties, especially if stress occurs over a prolonged period.



Many things (or the anticipation of them) can lead to stress. These include:

  • Pressure to perform at work or at school
  • Threats of physical violence
  • Money worries
  • Arguments
  • Family conflicts
  • Divorce
  • Bereavement
  • Unemployment
  • Moving house
  • Marriage

Often there is no particular reason for developing stress, and it’s caused by a build-up of a number of small things.

Stress can be caused by a range of common situations. However, people have very different responses to stress. For some people, stress can be useful, helping motivate them to achieve more. In others, particularly if it goes on for a long period of time, it causes a sense of not being able to cope.

It’s important to differentiate between temporary stress that you know will go away when a situation is resolved, and long-term or chronic stress. Most people can cope with short periods of stress. Chronic (long-term or continuous) stress is much harder to deal with, and can be psychologically and emotionally damaging, both for you and your friends and family.


Effects of Stress

The stresses we face in our everyday lives – such as deadlines at work or money troubles can cause your body to respond involuntarily, for example muscle tension or a racing heart. This is a result of the body’s central nervous system reacting to the pressures of everyday life.

Everyone reacts to stress differently, but there are some common effects to look out for. In times of extreme stress, people may tremble, hyperventilate (breathe faster and deeper than normal) or even vomit. For people with asthma, stress can trigger an asthma attack. People who are chronically stressed may have:

  • Periods of irritability or anger
  • Apathy or depression
  • Constant anxiety
  • Irrational behaviour
  • Loss of appetite
  • Comfort eating
  • Lack of concentration
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Increased smoking, drinking, or taking recreational drugs

There can also be physical effects, which may include the following:

  • Excessive tiredness
  • Skin problems, such as eczema
  • Aches and pains resulting from tense muscles, including neck ache, backache and tension headaches
  • Increased pain from arthritis and other conditions
  • Heart palpitations
  • Feeling sick
  • Stomach problems
  • For women, missed periods


Stress Management

If stress is causing physical symptoms, severe distress or making it difficult for you to function as normal, it’s worth seeing your doctor. It’s important to remember that although stress is a usual part of life, extreme or prolonged stress can be harmful and needs treatment. Your doctor will be able to spot the physical symptoms of stress. In case there are physical reasons for your symptoms, the doctor may also want to do some tests to exclude certain conditions. He or she may also help you identify the things that are causing your stress and give advice on learning techniques to help you relax.

There are four basic approaches to dealing with stress:

  • Removal or alteration of the source of stress
  • Learning to change how you see the stressful event
  • Reducing the effect on your body that stress has
  • Learning alternative ways of coping

There are several things that can help you do this, including self-help, relaxation, complementary therapies, and occasionally medication.


Self Help techniques are often very useful in coping with stress. Here are some ways you can help yourself to deal better with stress:

  • Take regular exercise – even if you are not sporty, brisk walking for 30 minutes every day can be a very effective stress buster
  • Delegate or share your responsibilities at work – making yourself indispensable can be a major source of problems
  • Learn to be more assertive – for example, not agreeing to things you know you can’t do well or know shouldn’t be your responsibility
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol or take drugs – these will not help you to cope better and may make you ill
  • Don’t drink too much caffeine
  • Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables
  • Set aside some time to organise yourself
  • Find some quiet time to listen to music or relaxation tapes
  • Learn breathing techniques – this can help you to ‘centre’ yourself and slow down

There are also lots of self-help materials available to help you learn how to manage stress. There is a healthy reading scheme in the Lothians called Help Yourself to Health. Your GP or health professional can now recommend a self-help book by giving you a book prescription. On it will be details of a suggested book title from a recommended list which you can borrow from your local library. Your prescription might also include some useful websites.

These books have been specifically chosen by health and information professionals to help people cope with difficult and emotional times in their lives.

Please click here for a full list of books available as part of the Help Yourself to Health scheme plus a bit of information about each book.

There are also free courses you can take, called Stress Control. This is a six week class focusing on understanding what stress is, how it affects us and how we can manage it. During the course, materials explore how stress affects how we think, how our body feels, what we do and our sleep pattern. The course is educational and each session is complimented with a summary handout and relaxation materials.

The course is free to attend and places can be booked by contacting Health in Mind on 0131 225 8501 or


Medicines are only in exceptional circumstances to help you cope with stress, although some types of anxiety can be treated with antidepressants.

Anti-anxiety drugs such as diazepam (eg Valium) aren’t suitable for treating stress. They won’t help you learn to cope better with the stresses you face, just make you less aware of them. You may also become dependent on this type of drug.

Rather than relying on medicine, it’s usually far better to try and identify the things in your life that are causing stress and try to deal with them.


Relaxation & Sleep

Relaxation training is a feature of some types of psychotherapy. Various types of relaxation therapy are available, which you might want to discuss with your doctor. You may find yoga, Tai Chi or other exercises helpful.

Click here for more about Sleep


Complementary approaches include aromatherapy and reflexology, and these may provide a quiet, relaxed environment in which to wind down. Learning relaxation techniques, breathing exercises and meditation can help you to relax. Practising yoga or the Alexander technique may help relieve muscle pains and help you control your breathing in stressful situations.

Although there are a wide variety of complementary therapies available for the treatment of anxiety, none have been conclusively shown to work and they may have side-effects. If you do choose to take a complementary medicine, you should always tell your GP or pharmacist, as it may interact with other medicines you’re taking.

Click here for more information on Complementary Therapies


Common Questions

Q: How can I relax after a tough day?

A: There are several different techniques you can learn to help you wind down and reduce your stress levels.

If you’re feeling stressed, make time at home to try out the following exercises.

Shut your eyes and breathe in and out slowly and gently

Visualise any tense areas of your body. Imagine your muscles relaxing and the tension draining away

Visualise every part of your body, imagine them warming up, feeling heavier and more relaxed all the time. Start at your feet and move up slowly to your head. When you have done this for about 20 minutes, inhale deeply a few times and stretch.


Q: Can stress affect my sleep patterns?

A: Yes, too much stress in your life can cause sleeping problems. There are steps you can take to try and sleep better when stressed.

An estimated one in five people have problems sleeping. Some simple tips to help you sleep better are listed below.

Get your sleep environment right. If it is too bright, use thicker curtains or an eye mask. If it is too loud, use ear plugs. Adjust your heating so it isn’t too hot or cold.

Try to get up and go to bed at the same time every day. If you get into a routine, you may start to feel sleepy at the same each day

Develop a routine that helps you relax before going to bed. Some ideas include going for a short walk, reading, taking a hot bath or having a warm drink (but not with caffeine in it). You could also try some relaxation exercises.

Exercising during the day may help you get to sleep, and also helps reduce stress.


Q: What type of exercise is best for relieving stress?

A: The type of exercise you do probably doesn’t matter, so long as you enjoy it and can do it regularly. Resistance exercise may help your body develops faster and you may find this improves how you feel about yourself and make you feel better. Others may find team sports more helpful for their mood.

Any type of moderate exercise can help you manage stress. Moderate exercise means you get slightly out of breath doing it, and on a warm day it might make you sweat.

People who are active feel less anxious and happier than inactive people. Exercising can make you feel less anxious in general. Single bouts of exercise can also have a more immediate effect in helping to relieve anxiety.

Exercising can also help you get to sleep more easily, and will help improve your mood.


Related Services

Breathing Space

Living Life


Useful Links

Help Yourself to Health

Stress Control