• Stress can manifest in a range of symptoms, physical and psychological

  • Dr Peter Larkins explores some of these and what can be done to manage them

  • If you are under long-term stress and need support, we have therapists available here

I find the concept of stress a fascinating subject. I think everyone in the world understands the nebulous concept of stress and has probably experienced a period of time in their life when they have been ‘under stress’. 

Even though the experience may be universal, the concept of being ‘under stress’ means vastly different things to different people and can manifest in a multitude of different ways —both physical and emotional. It intrigues me because it is an ‘invisible’ condition in some ways and has defied a clear definition despite many attempts by scientists, psychologists and other health practitioners.

The situations that commonly cause stress are perhaps easier to define. Perhaps you recognise some (or many) of the following: 

• conflict

• financial pressure

• frustration

• health concerns

• lack of control

• life changes

• relationship issues

• uncertainty

The preceding list is hardly exhaustive, and I could go on with many other examples. (Trust me, I have experienced them all!) While most people have probably experienced a number of these circumstances, the impact that they have on your system can vary widely. Working out how to deal with the stress that is imposed by these conditions is really the point I am aiming for in achieving a healthy life for you.

While the concept of stress is well known to most of us, it really only became popularised in the 1980s. Perhaps prior to that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents enjoyed a more relaxed style of life where stress was not a commonly used term as a feature of everyday survival in life—or perhaps they didn’t talk about it as much. While it might seem that ‘stress’ is another negative condition of our modern society, the feelings it creates have been around for a long time.

What does stress look like?

In one sense, stress is ‘invisible’; however, it does have some commonly recognised manifestations. These can include the following:

• agitation

• catastrophising


• disconnection

• fear

• headaches

• hyperventilation

• increased heart rate

• irrational decision-making

• irritability

• muscle tension

• nausea

• nervousness

• overthinking

• panic attacks

• restlessness

• rumination

• second-guessing

• sleep disturbance

• social avoidance

• sweating

• tight chest

• trembling

The ways that stress may manifest in an individual’s behaviour are extraordinary, and the preceding list is far from exhaustive. You may also have your own suggestions to add.

Why is it that some individuals are very prone to stress reactions, yet others seem to sail through life with hardly a care in the world? While reactions and responses are likely greatly influenced by your upbringing, your own attitude and your sense of your ability to ‘control’ situations where stress may manifest are also vitally important.

Certain low levels of stress can actually create responses that are positive (eustress). In my time working with elite athletes, I have learnt that performance is best during an optimal level of arousal or nervousness —this leads to better focus and application to the task at hand.

Psychologists have also suggested that a small dose of stress can be a positive thing, whereby those who live and cope with small amounts of stress develop healthier habits such as avoiding excessive alcohol or other unhealthy choices such as smoking. When combined with a positive attitude towards life and high degree of emotional awareness, these traits contribute to healthy longevity.

Dealing with stress

Learning strategies to help with stress is extremely important. This might include taking a step back to look at the bigger picture in any tough situation, rather than getting buried in small issues and frustrations. Other useful strategies for ‘in the moment’ relief include breathing techniques, a short meditation and developing an ability to focus on something more important than the current stress situation. Even a brief 10-minute walk around the block can allow you to refocus.

This is not to say that you should ignore a circumstance where action is required to deal with an obstruction or negative event in your life. I am simply advocating having the tools available to know when a stressful situation is potentially presenting itself and how you will need to deal with it. Life stress does lead to many individuals gaining the resources required, often through trial and error and the experience of the negative outcomes from their past.

Tip for managing stress over the long-term

To help deal with stressful situations over the long term, adopt ongoing relaxation strategies. These might include regular yoga and meditation, taking regular time out for yourself to do something you love (including exercise), seeking social support or connecting with others. Recognising the early signs of an impending stress situation and taking action to avoid the escalation of that situation is a significant help. 

One of the major clinical areas for psychologists is helping individuals deal with the anxiety and panic that is associated with stress in their lives. Techniques such as cognitive behaviour therapy are often utilised.

At times, certain medications may also be prescribed to try to stabilise the chemical imbalance that can be associated with the stress hormones going haywire. In most circumstances, this is a short-term intervention to help the individual regain relaxing sleep patterns and function in their day-to-day activities without the distraction of anxiety, irritability, tremor or high heart rates, all of which are physiological manifestations of the body being out of balance. 

Exercise (my favourite!) is also an important therapeutic tool for stress management. This is because exercise can:

• enhance your mood (through neurochemical release)

boost self-esteem

• allow for social interaction

• promote teamwork and goal setting

improve sleep

• reduce tension

• build relationships

• be enjoyable (through the release of ‘happy hormones’)

The concept of stress is not news to anyone; however, how it manifests or is described can be much more challenging. The secret is being able to deal with a stressful situation through your own behaviour techniques, and working to ensure stress doesn’t have an impact on our health going forward. Otherwise, it will be an inhibitor to you achieving your long healthy life.

Dr Peter Larkins is the author of The Healthy Hundred: 100 Ways to a Healthier, Happier and Longer Life

Watch psychologist Vincent Deary on the impact of chronic stress and illness

Further reading

Time alone, time with others: Two key ways to reduce stress

Why head, heart and gut matter in decision-making

Why rest isn't a waste of time, and how to do more of it

Why do some people get more stressed than others?

What's the tension in your body trying to tell you?