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When you’re stressed, your whole nervous system reacts and releases specific hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) into your blood stream. These hormones speed up your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and metabolism.

This can be a good thing as it can motivate you or help you get through a tough situation. Changes in your body as a result of stress can increase your ability to feel:

  • alert
  • energised
  • switched on
  • motivated
  • more resourceful.

In the long term, though, the pressure that stress puts on your body is bad for both your physical health and emotional wellbeing. Eventually, too much stress on your body over a long period of time can cause you to burn out. Burnout is a state of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.

Cumulative stress

Cumulative stress is a common experience for people who work in chronically stressful situations. It results from an accumulation of various stress factors such as heavy workload, poor communications, multiple frustrations, coping with situations in which you feel powerless, and the inability to rest or relax.

It is not necessarily traumatic, and can comprise a combination of factors that build up over time, gradually eroding our resilience and productivity. Prolonged exposure without adequate rest or relaxation can eventually have devastating results.


Physical e.g. fatigue, diarrhoea, constipation, headaches, abdominal and back pains, sleeping disorders, appetite changes.

Mental e.g. forgetfulness, poor concentration, poor job performance, negative attitude, loss of creativity and motivation, boredom, negative self-talk, paranoid thoughts.

Emotional e.g. anxiety, frustration, guilt, mood swings, undue pessimism or optimism, irritability, crying spells, nightmares, apathy, depression.

Relational e.g. feeling isolated, resentful or intolerant of others, loneliness, marriage problems, nagging, social withdrawal, antisocial behaviour. 

Behavioural e.g. increased alcohol, drug and/or tobacco use, change in eating habits or sexual behaviour, increase in risky behaviour, hyperactivity, avoidance of situations, cynical attitudes.

Collapse of belief systems: feeling of emptiness, doubt in religious beliefs, feeling unforgiven, looking for magical solutions, loss of purpose of life, needing to prove self-worth, cynicism about life.

It is important that:

 • you realise that feelings of distress in yourself and others are legitimate and not signs of personal weakness or lack of professionalism;

• you take the responsibility for noticing the signs and symptoms showing that your coping mechanisms are overloaded; and

• you ensure that you get support, not only to deal with the symptoms of stress that are emerging within you, but also to identify and tackle the cause of the stress.