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What is stress?

Stress is often described as a feeling of being overloaded, wound-up tight, tense and worried. There can be many different stressful situations or demands in an individual's life, however, the individual's experience of being 'stressed' is related to their perception of having the ability to cope with the stressful event.

People feel stressed when they perceive themselves as not having the ability to cope with the demands of a situation, or to complete a task to a particular standard or within the given timeframe. Some aspects of stress can be helpful as stress can focus attention on priorities, such as motivating a student to set aside time to prepare for a test. However, the experience of being stressed over a long period of time can be harmful and interfere with an individual's daily functioning, including their relationships, health, and mental wellbeing.1

Signs and symptoms

When faced with an event perceived as stressful, an individual's body responds by activating the nervous system and releasing stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones cause physical changes in the body which help an individual to react quickly and effectively to get through the stressful situation. This is sometimes called the 'fight or flight' response.2 The hormones increase the person's heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, metabolism, perspiration rate, and muscle tension, and dilate their pupils.

While such physiological changes help the individual try to meet the immediate challenges of the stressful situation, they can cause other symptoms if the stress is ongoing and the physiological stress response does not settle down. These symptoms can include:

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, muscular aches and pains, weakened immune system, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, fatigue, sleep disturbance, insomnia or stomach upsets
  • Psychological symptoms such as anger, irritability, changes in mood, anxiety, depression, helplessness, concentration or memory difficulties, low self-esteem, or feeling overwhelmed and out of control. 

What causes stress?

Stress is caused by an imbalance between the demands of the stressor and the individual's perceived capacity to meet those demands. In some situations, stressors can be removed (e.g., by getting an extension on a work deadline or changing jobs) or the demands of a stressor can be reduced (e.g., by sharing or delegating the stressful task). However, many stressors need to be managed by the individual.

There are a number of risk factors which have been said to interact and contribute to an individual's inability to manage stress. These factors include:

  • Biological factors such as genetic predispositions, poor physical health, some medications3
  • Social-environmental factors such as the breakdown of a marriage, work or school deadlines, lack of social support, financial hardship, unemployment3
  • Psychological factors such as low self-esteem, negative perceptions and beliefs, unhelpful coping strategies.3

Evidence-based psychological approaches and strategies

Stress management research has indicated positive client outcomes from a combination of coping and time management strategies including techniques used in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and lifestyle changes. These include:


Structured problem-solving involves identifying the problem underlying the stress, developing potential solutions to the problem, selecting and implementing the chosen solution, and evaluating its helpfulness.1

Cognitive strategies

An individual who is stressed may engage in negative self talk such as 'I can't cope', or 'I'm too tired to deal with this'. While this unhelpful self-talk might seem to be fairly truthful descriptions of the situation, it is not helpful in addressing the stressors. Recognising and challenging unhelpful thoughts and attitudes has been found to reduce stress levels.3

Stress inoculation training

Stress inoculation training is a cognitive-behavioural technique used by psychologists to help improve an individual's ability to cope with specific stressful social experiences by guiding the client through a series of visual rehearsals of successfully managing a particular upcoming stressful event.4

Relaxation techniques and meditation

Learning a meditation or relaxation technique, such as progressive muscle or autogenic relaxation, has been found to be an effective way to deal with stress. Meditation and relaxation techniques, if practiced regularly, can help reduce stress levels by allowing the body and nervous system to settle and readjust to a calm state.3

Assertiveness training

Stressful experiences for many individuals stem from frustrating or upsetting interactions. Assertiveness training is a technique which can be used to help individuals improve their communication skills. This is achieved by helping the individual understand the difference between assertive, passive, and aggressive communication styles and training them to express themselves in a respectful and effective way.5

Lifestyle changes

In addition to the above psychological techniques, making simple changes to an individual's lifestyle can help minimise a negative stress response. Developing a lifestyle to include regular exercise, having low or no intake of alcohol and caffeine, engaging in enjoyable activities, and having adequate sleep can help to reduce an individual's stress levels.3

How a psychologist can help

Through discussion with the client and the possible use of questionnaires and monitoring tools, the psychologist develops an understanding of the potential factors involved in the onset and maintenance of the individual's symptoms of stress. A treatment plan is then developed by the psychologist together with the individual. For stress management, this can involve CBT to develop more helpful ways of thinking and providing instruction around relaxation and sleep hygiene. It also involves help in increasing the client's range of coping strategies to more effectively respond to stressful events.

The psychologist may also assist their client to address any lifestyle factors which may increase their capacity to better manage their difficulties, and reduce symptoms of stress. They may also suggest involving a supportive family member or friend to assist in the understanding of the individual's situation and to support treatment.

Other professionals who might be involved

A medical review with a GP or another mental health specialist such as a psychiatrist may be suggested to determine whether another condition could account for the individual's symptoms. A GP or psychiatrist can offer advice and assistance around whether medication might be of benefit.

When to seek professional help

If stress is affecting a person’s work, school, home life, or relationships, psychological assistance should be considered. The APS Find a Psychologist service can be used to locate a psychologist in your local area: call 1800 333 497 or visit A GP can also organise a referral to an APS psychologist under the Better Access to Mental Health Care items.

More information

Australian Psychological Society
Australia's largest professional association for psychologists

Provides information on anxiety, depression, and related disorders

Australia's National Youth Mental Health Foundation, providing assistance for individuals aged 12-25

A 24-hour counselling, suicide prevention and mental health support service
Telephone: 13 11 14

  • Contributor(s)
    APS Member Resources Team

    Prof Glen Bates
    Deputy Dean
    Faculty of Life and Social Sciences
    Swinburne University of Technology
  • Publish date
    29 Jul 2013
  • References


  1. Aldwin C. Stress and Coping across the Lifespan. In: Folkman S, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health, and Coping: Oxford University Press; 2012.
  2. Pretzer JL, Beck AT. Cognitive approaches to stress and stress management. In: Lehrer PM, Woolfolk RL, Sime WE, eds. Principles and Practice of Stress Management. Third ed. New York: Guilford Publications; 2007:465-496.
  3. Kaplan A, Laygo R. Stress Managment. In: O'Donohue W, Fisher JE, Hayes SC, eds. Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Applying empirically supported techniques in your practice. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons; 2003:411-417.
  4. Meichenbaum D. Stress Inoculation Training. In: Lehrer PM, Woolfolk RL, Sime WE, eds. Principles and Practice of Stress Management,. Third ed. New York: Guilford Publications; 2007:497-516.
  5. Duckworth MP. Assertiveness skills and the management of related factors. In: O'Donohue W, Fisher JE, Hayes SC, eds. Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Applying empirically supported techniques in your practice. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons; 2003:16-22.

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