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Find out about the types and causes of stress, how to go about managing it, and discover help and support resources for those working in performing arts.

Last updated: 28 March 2024

It would be fair to say that stress is something we are all familiar with. Afterall, it’s ubiquitous and unavoidable, and something that we will all experience throughout our lifetime. Due to the various demands that life and society places on us, particularly during times of political and economic unrest, it’s understandable that a combination of circumstance, coping mechanisms and lifestyle factors can further contribute to our stress levels.

Whilst stress isn’t always a negative experience (and I’ll discuss this in more detail below), according to research carried out by Mental Health Foundation in 2018, 74% of us are feeling so stressed that we have felt unable to cope. This shockingly high figure suggests that more needs to be done to prevent us from reaching that tipping point.

With this guidance we aim to raise awareness about different types of stress, share some performer-specific resources, and general advice and information about where you can access support should you need it.

What is stress?

In literal terms, stress is the body’s physical response to a real or perceived threat, demand, or danger. Whilst many of us will be familiar with stress in its less desirable forms, it’s important to note that not all stress is bad. In fact, stress is an adaptive physiological response. You may have heard of this response to threat, demand, or danger referred to as ‘fight or flight’. Historically, the body’s adaptive response helped our ancestors to increase their awareness of surrounding threats through the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare the body to respond.

The release of stress hormones might make your:

  • Heartbeat faster
  • Muscles tighter
  • Breathing faster
  • Blood pressure higher
  • Senses sharper

Nowadays, an adaptive stress response might still help us to react quickly when we need to, complete tasks to a high standard, and even perform at our best. In small doses, stress can also help us to find ways to cope with, and overcome challenging situations, and to build resilience.

However, if our stress response becomes activated on a frequent or chronic basis, it’s not an adaptive response and can lead to several difficulties and health issues.

What causes stress?

Depending on the person, the cause of, and response to stress can vary significantly. Therefore, recognising the type of stress you might be experiencing and what it is that is making you stressed, is a key step to understanding the kind of support you might need, and what you may be able to do to help reduce your stress levels.

In general, we are likely to experience stress when we are unequipped or under resourced to manage the challenges we are facing. Our genes, upbringing and experiences as children or adults may also impact the factors that make us feel stressed.

Types of stress

Broadly speaking, types of stress fall into three main categories:

  • acute stress, which incorporates post-traumatic stress,
  • episodic stress, and
  • chronic stress.

Acute stress

Acute stress is the most common type of stress. It can be brought on by things such as being in an accident, a sudden bereavement, witnessing or being the victim of an attack, or being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Acute stress can also be experienced when preparing for a job interview, presentation, or performance; before a health-related appointment, and when anticipating major life events such as a wedding day, birth of child, moving house or starting a new job.

Common symptoms of acute stress include:

  • Emotional distress
  • Muscle tightness
  • Headache, back pain, or jaw ache
  • Stomach upset
  • Faster heartbeat
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Increased irritability
  • Having no, or reduced memory of a traumatic event
  • Avoiding people, places or things that remind you of a traumatic event
  • Reduced awareness of what’s happening around you
  • Having distressing thoughts, dreams, nightmares, and flashbacks relating to an event
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Feeling restless
  • Being easily startled

Acute stress doesn’t tend to have serious consequences on our mental and physical health. Due to its short duration, the body is usually able to find its way back to homeostasis. However, if you are experiencing significant distress for a prolonged period of time, it would be advisable to speak to a medical or health professional to ensure you receive proper treatment and support.

Episodic stress

When acute stress is experienced with some regularity or frequency, it may turn into episodic stress. This type of stress can also occur when impacted by consecutive stressors, such as a house move and starting a new job. It can also occur if we become preoccupied about a negative experience or a potential, future event. Someone with episodic stress may feel like they are always under pressure, or that things are frequently going wrong. Factors such as masking, which is common in, but not exclusive to the spectrum of neurodiverse conditions and differences can also lead to overwhelm and feelings of constant pressure.

Episodic stress may affect the way we interact with or behave towards others, and can lead to:

  • Unintended hostility
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Frequent irritability

If the stress you are experiencing is prolonged and negatively impacting your life, I would strongly encourage you to talk about it and reach out for help.

Chronic stress

Whilst it’s certainly not ideal for the mind and body to be under any type of stress for a prolonged period of time, it is chronic psychological stress that has been most frequently associated with poor health. Chronic stress can be described as an ongoing or continuous stress with little to no relief or respite. It often results from long term pressures and can be common for people dealing with, or caring for others who have prolonged health issues or disabilities.

High risk categories for developing chronic stress include:

  • Those who have experienced significant trauma, been abused or witnessed the abuse of others
  • Going through a long-term divorce or prolonged issues relating to child custody
  • High-stress or frontline jobs (e.g  emergency service workers, those in the armed forces and navy, crisis workers)
  • Prolonged housing issues and financial hardship
  • Living in a dangerous neighbourhood with high rates of crime and/or political conflicts or war
  • Experiencing discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, religion, cultural background, etc.
  • Having low self-esteem.

If you have chronic stress, your body experiences the fight or flight response too frequently to recover between episodes. This means your nervous system is in a constant state of arousal, and having an overload of stress hormones in our bodies can lead to significant health issues over time.

Managing stress

Whilst it's impossible to control every factor that may be causing us stress, the good news is, there are certain things we can do to maintain our wellbeing. Staying on top of our health and wellbeing can help us to better manage and cope with certain stressors.

Want to talk about it?

Talking about the issues or challenges that are causing us stress, especially when stress begins to negatively impact to our lives, can help to alleviate the burden of carrying it alone.

You may prefer to talk to friends or family, but if you want to speak to a professional, a good starting point would be your NHS GP.

If you are part of the 76% who’ve felt so stressed that you’ve been unable to cope, please know that there is help and support out there and you’re never alone. BAPAM’s Mental Health Support in a Crisis resource provides information on getting help immediately should you need it.

Helpful information and videos about managing stress

Performing arts-specific support

The current economic climate, Inflation and the cost of living is a source of stress for millions of people across the UK. BAPAM’s Sources of Financial and Practical Support resource lists industry organisations that offer help, financial and practical support to those working in the performing arts, including musicians, actors, dancers, creative practitioners and technicians.

You may also find the following information helpful:

This advice has been provided by British Association for Performing Arts Medicine’s Mental Health Ambassador Anushka Tanna.

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