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Stress: what it is, what causes it and how to test for it

Stress: what it is, what causes it and how to test for it

5 minute read time

A stress test, also called a Cortisol stress test, shows you whether your stress hormone levels are within normal range, or if they are too high or too low. Cortisol is important for your body to function normally and having too much or too little cortisol in your body can be harmful to your health. You can identify whether your stress hormone levels could be impacting your life, your immunity, and your health with a simple stress test.

What is stress?

Stress is our body’s natural response to pressures from a situation or a life event. This could include being under a lot of pressure at work or in your relationships, worrying about something or facing changes. These events – whether they’re external, environmental or biological – are called stressors. It’s important to note that what is stressful to one person may not be stressful for another. When we encounter a stressor, the stress response in our body produces hormones (such as cortisol) that trigger a fight-or-flight response. 

Most people have experienced stress in their lives. Sometimes and for some people, small infrequent stress can be a good thing, helping drive motivation and activity. However, for some people stress triggers unpleasant responses – both mental and physical – and continual stress can have a real impact on your health. 

When we experience stress, our body produces stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones trigger a fight-or-flight response, which is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. A stressful incident can make the heart pound and can trigger other related symptoms. Usually, once such an event has passed, hormone levels return to normal; however, if you constantly feel stressed, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on and can disrupt your body and overall wellness.

What causes stress?

Many different situations, factors and life events can cause stress, and what counts as a stressor can vary from person to person. For some, a small amount of stress can sometimes be motivational, and help us to achieve things in our daily lives. The hormones released can help our body and mind to cope with a situation and stay alert. This type of stress is known as acute stress and it doesn’t last long term.

However, when stress levels start to increase and last longer, it can be a long-term issue. Too much stress can affect our mood, our bodies and relationships, leaving us to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. Stress can make us feel anxious and irritable, and in the longer term, it can affect our physical and mental health.

If you constantly feel stressed, your body’s fight-or-flight response can linger. This can lead to an overexposure of cortisol and can put you at an increased risk of developing many health problems. Over time, repeated activation of physiological responses can impact overall health and cause other issues – this is known as chronic stress.

Chronic stress can cause brain changes like anxiety and depression. It has also been linked to physical health problems like heart disease, problems with the immune system, insomnia, and digestive problems. This type of stress can go on for a long time and can last for weeks or even months.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone”, plays an important role in your body’s response to stressful situations. It also contributes to many of the body’s processes, like your immune system and metabolism. Cortisol is important for your body to function normally, and having too much or too little cortisol in your body can be harmful to your health. 

When you experience stress, cortisol is made by your adrenal glands and can affect almost every organ in your body, which is why it is important to find effective ways to manage stress. 

In normal amounts, cortisol helps your body to:

  • Respond to stress
  • Fight infection
  • Regulate blood sugar
  • Maintain blood pressure
  • Regulate metabolism

Cortisol is important for your health, but too much of it can be bad for your health and cause unwanted symptoms.  Which is why taking a stress test, or cortisol stress test to be precise, is really important to help monitor your health and wellbeing. 

How common is stress?

We all know what it feels like to be stressed. At some point in our lives, most people have felt stress when we have had a lot to think about or have had demands placed on us which we might find difficult to cope with. 

These demands can often come from relationships, financial pressures, work, and other situations but any situation can cause symptoms of stress – even situations we often think of as happy events.

According to the Mental Health Foundation 74% of UK adults have at some point, over the past year, felt so stressed that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. What’s more, almost a third of people had experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of stress. 

While stress isn’t necessarily always seen as a mental health condition, it can often lead to anxiety, self-harm and suicide. Stress can also lead to physical health problems such as joint and muscle problems and also cardiovascular disease.

What are the symptoms of stress?

Stress can cause a variety of unwanted feelings and symptoms. It can affect how you feel physically, mentally, and also how you behave. We all experience stress differently in different situations. 

Mental symptoms of stress can include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Struggling to make decisions
  • Constantly worrying
  • Being forgetful

Behavioural symptoms of stress include:

  • Being irritable and snappy
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Avoiding certain places or people
  • Drinking or smoking more

Physical stress symptoms of can include:

  • Headaches or dizziness
  • Upset stomach, constipation, and/or diarrhoea
  • Shallow breathing or hyperventilating
  • Feeling like you might have a panic attack
  • Chest pains or a faster heartbeat
  • Sexual problems

When you are feeling stressed, you may have noticed a feeling of unease in your stomach. In some people stress slows down digestion which can cause bloating, pain and constipation. In others, it speeds up digestion which can cause diarrhoea. 

The symptoms of stress can be similar to those of a food intolerance, such as itchy skin, fatigue, and headaches. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, it is important that you see your GP to determine what the causes are. You can also start this journey by taking a stress test and understanding and monitoring your own cortisol levels. 

How to test for stress

Cortisol levels can be detected and monitored using a Stress (Cortisol) test. A stress test is usually a blood test, which monitors your hormone levels. 

If you’re concerned about stress, you can identify whether your stress hormone levels could be impacting your life, your immunity, and your health YorkTest’s simple at-home Stress (Cortisol) test. The results will reveal whether your cortisol levels are within the normal range, too high or too low and whether you need to make lifestyle changes or visit your GP. Being aware of your

cortisol level is a first step to making positive changes. It also makes it easier to track your levels of stress over time and to change your life for the better. 

YorkTest is a leading health and wellness company with over 40 years of experience and scientific expertise in the provision of home-to-laboratory tests. The YorkTest team provides effective health and wellness advice and support. 

yorktest stress (cortisol) test

Helpful sites:

Guide to how to manage and reduce stress | Mental Health Foundation

Get help with stress | NHS UK 

Disclaimer: YorkTest Laboratories Ltd provides laboratory test results and nutritional support services for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice. The results provided cannot be used to diagnose, treat or cure medical or health conditions. If you are concerned about your symptoms, then please contact your GP or other medical professional.


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