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The impact of stress in Australia

Stress, its link to mental health and coping strategies

A young woman sitting at her desk in the office rubbing, appearing stressed with her hand on her face
A young woman sitting at her desk in the office rubbing, appearing stressed with her hand on her face

A big presentation at work, running late for an important meeting or juggling too many demands – stress is part of life.

“Stress is a response to a threat in any given situation and is the body’s way of protecting you,” says Senior Clinical Psychologist and Head of Clinical Services at Black Dog Institute, Laura Kampel.

It’s important to recognise that stress is usually a short-term experience and can even be helpful.

“Stress can kick in so that you can rise to meet challenges,” Laura explains. “It’s what keeps you on your toes during a presentation or sharpens your concentration.”

But too much stress can take a heavy toll on our wellbeing. “Stress becomes unhelpful when it is prolonged and when someone feels that the demands of their work/life are greater than their abilities, skills or coping strategies,” Laura says.

Stress like this doesn’t just harm your health and hip pocket, it costs the Australian economy billions of dollars each year.

The impact of stress in Australia

A growing body of research shows ongoing stress contributes to physical illness – from high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease (although this link requires further research) to being more prone to infections and chronic fatigue. Left untreated, stress can also evolve into mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression.

Stress-related conditions mean we tend to take more sick days and personal leave and we’re less productive when we’re at work.

Safe Work Australia says stress has also been linked with poor work and product quality and high staff turnover, raising the amount businesses spend each year hiring and training new staff.

Stress statistics in Australia

The Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey, conducted by the Australian Psychological Society, found lower levels of wellbeing and higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety symptoms in the population.

Some important findings include:

  • Younger adults (18-25) consistently reported lower levels of wellbeing, with personal finance issues, health issues and family issues the top stressors across all age groups.

  • Pressure to maintain a healthy lifestyle clocked in as the fourth most common cause of stress.

  • The majority of Australians feel that stress impacts their physical health (72%) and mental health (64%) but very few reported seeking professional help.

  • More than one in 10 Australians (12%) reported keeping up with social media networks contributed to their overall levels of stress.

It’s not just adults who are impacted. According to research conducted through Headspace and the National Union of Students, a whopping 83.2% of Australian university and TAFE students reported their health and wellbeing was affected by stress.

A man sitting at a desk rubs his eyes under his glasses

Signs your stress levels are unhealthy

Many of us can recognise when we’re under stress, but sometimes stress can develop over time and we may not be aware of the effect it’s having on us.
That’s why it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms that can affect how we feel, act and think.

You might be feeling:

  • very worried or afraid most of the time

  • tense and on edge

  • nervous or scared

  • panicky

  • irritable, agitated

  • detached from your body

You may be thinking:

  • “everything's going to go wrong”

  • “I can't handle the way I feel”

  • “I can't stop worrying”

  • “I feel out of control”

You may also be experiencing:

  • sleep problems (can't get to sleep, wake often)

  • pounding heart

  • tummy aches, churning stomach

  • headaches

  • problems concentrating

  • feeling teary

  • muscle tension

  • irritability

And you may be:

  • eating more or less

  • withdrawing from others

  • procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities

  • using alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to relax

Self-care strategies to help you cope with stress

Learning to cope with stress can require some trial and error. “What works for one person might not work for you, and it’s important to build your own toolkit so that you have more than one strategy to implement when problematic stress kicks in,” Laura says.

1. Learn to relax

You can’t eliminate stress from your life, but you can manage how much it affects you. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the stress response. “When practised regularly, these activities can reduce your everyday stress levels and boost feelings of joy and serenity,” Laura says. “They also increase your ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.”

2. Get moving

Regular exercise can lift your mood and serve as a distraction from worries, allowing you to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed stress.

3. Connect with others

The simple act of talking face-to-face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when you’re feeling agitated or insecure. “Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another person can help calm and soothe your nervous system,” Laura says. “So spend time with people who improve your mood and don’t let your responsibilities keep you from having a social life.” If you don’t have any close relationships, or your relationships are the source of your stress, make it a priority to build stronger and more satisfying connections.

Related: How to create and maintain deep, meaningful friendships

It's important to seek support early if you're experiencing prolonged stress

4. Eat a healthy diet

The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood and affect your ability to cope with life’s stressors. Eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids can help you better cope with life’s ups and downs.

Related: 10 foods that can help lift your mood

5. Get enough rest and sleep

The link between sleep and mental health is well known, and your body needs time to recover from stressful events. It’s vital to make good sleep habits a priority and take time out when you need to.

Programs and apps to help you manage stress

If stress is becoming a problem in your life, or you want to act early to prevent stress from becoming chronic, there are plenty of digital tools that can help.

nib foundation supports Black Dog Institute, which has a range of self-help programs and apps.

  • MyCompass is an online self-help program for people experiencing mild-to-moderate stress, anxiety and depression.

  • BiteBack is an online positive psychology program for young Australians who are 13-16 years old.

  • iBobbly is a self-help app for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Other useful resources:

  • The Australian Government website Head to Health is a great way to find empirically validated online resources and apps for different mental health problems.

  • The MindSpot Clinic is a free online and telephone service for Australian adults who might be suffering from symptoms of anxiety or depression. There’s also an online screening assessment that will help you learn about any symptoms you might be experiencing and guide you on the best next steps to take.

  • This Way Up helps you learn useful tools to take care of your mental health.

  • SilverCloud is a digital mental health solution designed to support and promote positive behaviour change. It provides access to a comprehensive range of tools and personalised content that empowers you to take proactive steps to manage anxiety and depression. nib members receive free access to SilverCloud  via the nib App.

When to seek help

“It's important to seek support early if you're experiencing prolonged stress,” Laura says. “Your symptoms may not go away on their own and if left untreated, they can start to take over your life.”

If you have concerns about your mental health, or you’ve noticed changes in the way you’re thinking or feeling, the best thing you can initially do is speak to your GP. If seeing a psychologist seems beneficial, your GP can work with you to develop a mental health plan, which includes up to 20 Medicare rebatable sessions.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14

  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

For more information on free mental health support, check out our article, 6 ways to get help for mental health – and you won’t have to pay a thing!