If you feel overloaded with stress, then you are not alone. Research commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation shows that two-thirds of people in this country experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes, and stress is a key factor in this. In the 2018 YouGov poll of 4,169 UK adults 74% of people said they had at some point felt so stressed they were overwhelmed or unable to cope. Another recent poll, conducted for AXA by One Poll on 4,000 UK adults in 2017, concurs with this finding, with 82% of people feeling stressed at least some time during a typical week, and 8% who felt stressed all the time. Around half a million people are currently experiencing work-related stress in the UK.


The physical toll

In the Mental Health Foundation’s survey, of the adults who reported experiencing stress:

  • 46% said they ate too much or ate unhealthily due to stress.
  • 29% started drinking or increased their drinking.
  • 16% started smoking or increased their smoking.

Stress takes its toll physically in numerous ways:

  • Gastrointestinal problems Stress has been shown to affect our gastrointestinal system as our brain activity and gut are closely inter-connected. IBS is associated with psycho-social stressors such as work-related stress, money worries or lack of social support. Stomach ulcers are a classic example of the impact of stress on the body.
  • Heart conditions There is a strong link between stress and cardiovascular disease. The INTERHEART study, conducted across 52 countries, found a strong relationship between psycho-social stress and heart attacks, comparable to the effects of smoking and hypertension.
  • Diabetes, hypertension and angina And stressful living circumstances or working conditions have been linked to high blood pressure, diabetes and ischemic heart diseases such as angina.
  • Immune function Chronic stress lowers our immunity due to the body being subjected to prolonged or frequent activation of the stress response.
  • Inflammation leading to depression The effects of longterm stress on the immune system may also be linked to inflammation in the body, which recent research* suggests may be a risk factor for depression.


The psychological toll

In the Mental Health Foundation’s survey, of the adults who reported experiencing stress:

  • 61% said they feel anxious
  • 16% have self-harmed
  • 32% have had suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • 37% reported feeling lonely because of stress
  • A robust body of research indicates that adverse childhood experiences increase the impact of and susceptibility to other sources of stress in the future.
  • If you have few decision-making responsibilities at work you are more likely to report feeling stressed.
  • Around 15% of people at work have a mental health condition.


Top stressors

For women the leading stressors were personal finances (43%), health of family and friends (41%) and personal health (40%), whereas for men work pressure was top, followed by personal health, then personal finances.

  • Health Longterm health conditions (either your own or those of close family and friends) were the top stressor in the report, with 36% of adults who reported stress in the previous year citing it as a trigger.
  • Work A recent poll found that 38% of people reported being stressed about work, with many taking work calls and checking emails outside working hours (59% and 55% respectively). In 2016 15 million working days were lost because of stress, anxiety or depression, the fourth most common reason for people taking time off work.
  • Work/life imbalance In the UK workers average 7.7 hours of unpaid overtime. A 2017 Unison survey found 92% of people felt they had bene under too much pressure at work at some point, and 67% considered excessive work demands as the source of their stress at work.
  • Money For many people stress centres around pay or salary prospects (72%) and paying household bills (60%). Not having enough money to meet basic needs was one of the top three listed sources of stress reported in the Mental Health Foundation study, with 22% of adults who said they were stressed citing it as a reason.
  • Social media Of those who said they felt stressed in the survey 12% said feeling as if they need to respond instantly to messages (such as WhatsApp or Facebook messages) was a stressor. 49% of 18-24-year-olds felt that comparing themselves (through social media) to others was a source of stress.
  • Current affairs The survey found that 19% of adults who use the internet and reported high levels of stress said their feelings about current affairs were a source of stress.

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Information adapted from The Mental Health Foundation’s Report Stress: Are We Coping? published for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018

* Slavich GM and Irwin MR (2014) Psychol Bulletin and Bell, Kivimaki, Bullmore & Steptoe (2017) Translational Psychiatry


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