Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Dr Sarah Jarvis is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

8 min read

We live in interesting times. Whether it’s fuel prices, interest rates, political upheaval, or global conflicts, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there’s a lot more uncertainty than there has been for decades.

Stress is defined by many professionals as “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilise”. In short, if you feel you can’t cope, you’re stressed.

Most of us have been unable to freely travel since early 2020, and are desperate for a break. Holidays are often seen as a perfect time to unwind and get away from the stresses of everyday life. But if you’re too stressed, it could prevent you from being able to make the most of your break. Recognising the tell-tale signs of stress and taking steps to deal with it could allow you to make the most of your holiday and come back feeling relaxed and reinvigorated.

White water flows through rocks in Virgina USA

Are stress and pressure the same?

Feeling stressed is different from feeling under pressure. We all need a bit of pressure. If nobody ever told you that you needed to get anything done – if you had no commitments or deadlines – chances are that you’d be much less productive. 

If you’re under too much pressure, it can feel that you’ll never get to the end of your commitments. It becomes hard to decide what to prioritise and you’re constantly waiting for someone to ask why you haven’t finished that work they need so urgently. At this stage stress and anxiety often kick in – and that’s not a good mix.

What are the symptoms of stress?

Stress floods your body with ‘fight or flight’ hormones. This means you’d be more able to run away from a charging elephant – but it can also mean you feel constantly in a state of panic. It’s worth teasing out all the ways stress can affect your body, so you can recognise it and take steps to fight back.

What are the emotional symptoms of stress?

Most of us feel impatient and irritable at times (I am no exception!) and it’s natural to feel a bit wound up if things don’t go according to plan. But if you’re finding yourself experiencing the symptoms below on a really regular basis – even when there’s no immediate reason – you could be stressed.

  • Moodiness
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Short temper or snappiness
  • Irritability or impatience
  • Finding it impossible to relax
  • Feeling tense and “on edge” all the time, even when there’s no obvious pressure
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • A sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness

Stress and your brain

Stress is exhausting, and it takes a major toll on your brain. Classic clues that you might be stressed include any of the following, especially if they’re out of character for you:

  • Memory problems
  • Indecisiveness
  • Not being able to concentrate
  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Making decisions you regret, or that others think are unwise
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Not being able to see issues objectively
  • Constant worrying about what might go wrong, no matter how unlikely.

What are the physical symptoms of stress?

Stress can really take its toll on your physical well-being, too. Common pointers include:

  • Headaches or backaches
  • Muscle tension and stiffness
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Skin breakouts (hives, eczema)
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds.

How to cope with stress

Regardless of what your individual causes of stress are, there’s often a common theme – there’s almost always an element of feeling out of control.

That’s where coping mechanisms you can adapt to almost any type of stress come in. The theory is that you can divide your coping mechanisms into three main areas – action-orientated, emotionally-orientated, and acceptance-orientated.

Take action

You can take an action-based approach when there are concrete steps you can take to combat the cause of your stress. For instance, if you’re stressed about your holiday, make a list of all the things that worry you and then write down how you can address them. That can help you feel much more in control, as you know you’re much less likely to get unwelcome holiday surprises. This could include:

  • Do I have the right documents? Print out the instructions from your travel company (or contact them and ask for written details); confirm your passport is up to date (for some countries you need to have 6 months left before it expires); check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice for the country you’re going to, to make sure you have everything you need; and keep all the documents you need, including your driving licence if appropriate, in a single folder you can pack.
  • What if I can’t take my medical equipment? Use the checklists on our condition-specific advice to avoid nasty surprises.
  • What if my medications aren’t allowed? Use our helpful blog on taking medication abroad to know what you can and can’t do.
  • What if the plane is delayed? Look up your airline’s policy on reimbursement and ask your travel provider what they have in place if travel is disrupted.
  • What if I get ill while I’m away? Will my insurance cover me? You might be surprised how many conditions have to be declared to insurers. If you don’t, your insurance could be invalid. And even if you’re travelling in a country that’s covered by the GHIC, there are certain elements that aren’t covered. Always take out travel insurance for your specific needs.
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Glenorchy lagoon in New Zealand with a small boardwalk

Change your mindset

Then there’s the emotion-orientated approach. This is for where you have stress you can’t manage, but you teach yourself to look at it another way to change the way you feel about it. Possible examples:

  • You know being caught in traffic when you’re driving to the airport will stress you, no matter how much time you’ve left. Keep a playlist of your favourite music that you’re only allowed to play once you’ve been stuck in traffic for at least 15 minutes. Soon you’ll be counting down the minutes until you can play it.
  • The idea of being ripped off with holiday purchases makes your blood boil. Of course, you can always take action – checking exchange rates and never buying unless you’re sure you’re getting a good deal. But you can also remember how lucky you are that you can afford to go on holiday abroad when often the people you’re buying from can’t.

Look after you

Finally, there’s the acceptance-orientated approach. This is where you can’t avoid the stress, and you know it’s going to make you feel anxious. But being in a good general place, physically and mentally, can mean it takes less of a toll on you.

  • No matter what happens, travelling just makes me anxious. Read our tips on travelling if you have anxiety.
  • There’s so much uncertainty in the world and I can’t make a difference. Think about a ‘detox’ from the news – most news won’t affect you directly in the short term. You may think it’s important to keep up to date, but if it’s affecting your mental health, you owe it to yourself to take a break.
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol. You may feel that being abroad is a time to let your hair down – but too much alcohol can affect your judgement and interfere with your sleep. It can also leave you prone to dehydration and headaches.
  • But do top up your other fluids. Getting dehydrated can leave you prone to urine infections, kidney damage and deep vein thrombosis. Remember that you’ll need to up your fluid intake if you’re in a hot climate, as you’ll be losing more fluid due to sweating.
  • Eat healthily. A sudden change in diet can leave you feeling sluggish, bloated, constipated and more. Keep your intake of fruit and vegetables up.
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