Feeling stressed? At what point does it become a genuine issue?

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PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

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Macho, strong, breadwinner... There’s a definite theme to traditional male stereotypes.

Of course, these stereotypes don’t always apply - especially in this day and age - but where they do, they could be contributing to a ticking time bomb in our nation’s health, particularly when it comes to stress.

According to Labour Force Survey figures for 2011/2012, stress now accounts for 40% of all work-related illness (with each person suffering, on average, 24 days off sick).

Stress, per se, is not an illness, of course.

“The term ‘stress’ is hard to define,” says Jay Brewer, head of physiology at Nuffield Health. “F or some it can be the annoyance of a traffic jam, while for others it can be a crippling feeling that sends the body and mind into shock. Stress is seen as a bad thing to be avoided, but actually small or particular amounts can be beneficial. Good levels of stress encourage us to problem-solve and provide invigorating challenge.”

Certainly for many, a job with zero stress would be rather boring, and on a very basic level, the body’s stress response exists in order to promote survival, triggering chemical reactions which push us into action.

But at what point does it become a health problem?

Joy Reymond, head of rehabilitation at financial protection insurers Unum, points out that we often begin to experience stress as a problem when we feel overwhelmed by the demands we’re facing.

“Stress is not a medical diagnosis, but a transient state. Over time it can transform into an illness: sustained and severe stress may lead into a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, and it can exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems,” she explains.

These problems can manifest physically too.

In the short term, this can mean poor sleep, increased susceptibility to infections (ever noticed how you’re constantly “run down” when you’ve been rushing all over the place?), mood changes like irritability and poor lifestyle practices - like a lack of motivation to exercise or eat well.

These factors combine, along with associated ongoing chemical imbalances, to create more serious long term risks, and stress is increasingly being recognised as an important factor in major illness.