Understanding stress – and how to manage it


3 minutes

06 December 2021

A young man lying on the grass relaxing and listening to music

Feeling tense? A psychologist explains how the stress response works, and how to tame it.

Stress is a natural human experience that we all feel from time to time.1

But while small doses can sometimes be helpful, if the stress becomes greater than your ability to cope, it can impact your mental and physical health.1

We talked to psychologist Christine Bagley-Jones, director of Plenish Mind Health in Brisbane, for some expert advice.

In this article

What is stress and why does it happen?

Stress triggers a ‘fight or flight’ response in your body – where hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released to prepare you to respond quickly to a potential threat.1

“You can have a love-hate relationship with the stress response,” Bagley-Jones says.

“We need it for those occasions when we have to make a quick decision about the best ways to safeguard our wellbeing, whether it’s a physical or emotional risk.”

In those situations – whether you need to flee from a tiger or meet an important deadline at work – a quick burst of stress can give you the energy and drive you need to act.1 

But if this happens too often, it can quickly leave you overwhelmed.

“The trick is to harness stress and use it for good, not evil,” Bagley-Jones says. 

“You don’t want it firing off all the time so that it becomes your natural way of operating. That may place your body in a constant state of threat and duress.”

Stress and your health

You may notice that after a big burst of stress you feel quite tired, Bagley-Jones says.

When stress hormones are released, your body kicks into high gear, and your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure can all increase.2

“If you’re experiencing stress all the time, it can create anxiety, fluctuations in mood and low energy levels,” she says.

“And over time, cortisol levels that are too high for too long can lead to health problems.”

How to manage stress

“It's important to manage stress levels,” Bagley-Jones says.

“Luckily, there are lots of strategies you can try to get this tricky little beast under control.”

A few ideas she suggests that may help include:

  • Exercise. Moving can be a great way to reduce stress and boost your mood and energy levels.
  • Meditation or relaxation exercises. Deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness can help relax your mind and body, supporting your mental wellbeing. Yoga can also be an enjoyable way to unwind. 
  • Make time for things you enjoy. Balance is important – allow yourself time to relax and engage in things that make you feel good, whether it’s reading, listening to music, doing a craft or catching up with friends.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. If you have trouble getting to sleep, ensure your bedroom is cool, dark and quiet, avoid caffeine late in the day, and try relaxing activities to unwind before bed.
  • Identify causes of tension and worry. If there are situations that are contributing to your stress – like relationship conflicts or being overwhelmed at work – consider if there are any changes you can make. A counsellor or psychologist can help you work through this.3
  • Learn coping strategies. A psychologist can teach you tools and strategies to help you cope with stressful life challenges and symptoms of mental illness.4
  • Eat healthy food. It’s important to nourish your body with a nutritious, balanced diet to help support your physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Talk to someone you trust. Whether it’s a friend, a family member or a health professional, simply talking to someone can help you feel more supported as well as getting troubling thoughts off your chest.

Where to get help

If stress is impacting your wellbeing, a good place to start is seeing your GP. They may be able to help support you and can refer you to other health professionals as needed. 

How can health insurance help?

HBF extras cover can give you benefits towards a few services that may help with managing stress:

  • Psychology. A psychologist can help teach you strategies for managing stress and improving your mental health and wellbeing.
  • Natural therapies. Some people find natural therapies such as acupuncture or remedial massage helpful for supporting their wellbeing.

If you’re an HBF member, you can check what you're covered for by logging on to myHBF or calling us on 133 423.

Mental health cover you can feel good about

Find health cover that includes mental health services, for extra support when you need it most.

Find out more


  1. 1healthdirect – Stress (2019)
  2. 2Better Health Channel – Stress
  3. 3Beyond Blue – Reducing stress
  4. 4healthdirect – Psychologists and psychology (2019)


This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.