In today’s fast-paced world, chronic stress is prevalent and too often becomes a regular part of our life. But, unfortunately, many times, you don’t always realize when you are suffering from stress or anxiety. So, let’s take a few minutes to go over what that means.
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s way of responding to high demands or threats. When you sense danger-real or imagined, the body’s defenses kick into high gear, known as the fight-or-flight “stress response.” Stress is good as it will help you rise to meet challenges. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts to cause damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships, and quality of life.
If you are frequently overwhelmed, it’s time and to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. There are four signs of chronic stress that you should be aware of, physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive. Let’s break them down one by one.
Your body can tell you a lot based on your ailments, and not just due to having a physical condition. It might also be telling you that you are too stressed out and that it needs to be addressed. For example, if you notice:
- Sleep disruption
- Losing or gaining weight
- Skin changes like adult acne
- Intestinal or digestive problems
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Aches and pains
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds or flu
Your emotional state is very closely related to your stress level. It is what you might notice first in determining if you are stressed. For example, you might feel overwhelmed and don’t have complete control over your life or have extremely low self-esteem and depression. Or if you find that you can’t emotionally handle others, and you can’t quiet your mind’s racing thoughts. Sometimes if you are agitated with others, that might also be from a heightened chronic stress level.
Here are other signs of emotional stress:
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Moodiness, irritability, or anger
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Loneliness and isolation
- Other mental or emotional health problems
You should also pay close attention to your behavior and how it might change from day-to-day. For example, you may be fidgeting or biting your nails, or pacing a lot. This is often associated with being stressed out.
More signs of behavioral stress:
- Irritation, or lashing out at others
- Easily angered
- Eating more or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing from others
Cognitive and Mental Symptoms
Cognitive signs of stress are related to your mental state and sometimes confused with emotional symptoms. For example, if you suddenly have poor judgment and are making bad decisions at work or in your personal life, that is related to your cognitive function. As a result, you might not be able to focus much on tasks. On the other hand, stress can also cause poor memory and sudden disorganization where it wasn’t a problem previously in your life.
Cognitive symptoms of chronic stress:
- Inability to concentrate
- Racing thoughts
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Brain fog
- Constant worrying
Stress Depends on Your Perception
Finally, what causes stress depends on your perception of it. Something stressful to you may not be important to someone else. While you may be terrified of getting up in front of people to perform or speak, for example, others live to be in the spotlight. Where one person thrives under pressure and performs best in the face of a looming deadline, another will shut down when work demands put pressure on them. And while you may enjoy helping to care for your elderly parents, your siblings may find the needs of care-taking overwhelming and stressful.
Perceived Chronic Stress Causes
Now let’s look at more general causes of perceived stress.
Common external causes of stress include:
- Major life changes
- Work or school
- Relationship difficulties
- Financial problems
- Too many commitments
- Children and family
Common internal causes of stress include:
- Inability to accept uncertainty
- Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
- Negative self-talk
- Unrealistic expectations / perfectionism
Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it’s essential to know your limit. But how much pressure is “too much” differs from person to person. Some people seem to be able to roll with life’s punches, while others tend to crumble in the face of small obstacles or frustrations. Some people even thrive on the excitement of a high-stress lifestyle, also known as a “stress addiction.”
Factors That Influence Your Stress Tolerance Level
There are some aspects of your lifestyle that can significantly increase or decrease your stress tolerance level.
A strong supportive network of friends and family members is an enormous buffer against stress. When you have people you can count on, life’s pressures don’t seem as overwhelming. Unfortunately, the lonelier and more isolated you are, the greater your risk of succumbing to stress.
Sense of control
If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride. On the other hand, if you believe that you have little control over your life and you’re not in control of your environment and circumstances—you are more likely to be overcome by anxiety.
Attitude and outlook
Your attitude toward life and its challenges make a difference in your ability to handle stress. If you’re optimistic, you’ll be less vulnerable. Emotionally strong people tend to embrace challenges, have a sense of humor, believe in a higher purpose, and accept change as an inevitable part of life.
Ability to deal with emotions
If you don’t have some go-to tools to use when feeling sad, angry, or troubled, you’re more likely to become stressed and agitated. Identifying and dealing appropriately with your emotions can increase your tolerance to stress and help you bounce back from adversity.
Knowledge and preparation
The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For instance, if you are going into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect it will be less stressful than expecting a speedy, painless recovery.
Improve Your Stress Management Tactics
Increasing your activity level is one strategy to help you relieve stress and feel more confident. In addition, activity can distract you from worries and allow you to break the cycle of negative thoughts. Exercises such as walking, running, swimming, and dancing are practical options to relieve stress.
Connection to others
When you are feeling frustrated or insecure, the simple act of talking with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress. Even a brief exchange of kind words with another person can help calm and soothe your nervous system. So, spend time with others who boost your mood. If you don’t have any close relationships or relationships that are outside the source of your stress, make it a priority to choose satisfying relationships with others.
Focus on your five senses
Another way to relieve stress is to engage one or more of your senses, such as sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. The key is to find what works best for you. For example, does listening to music make you feel calm? Or the smell of freshly brewed coffee? Or maybe you have a soft spot for animals? Everyone responds a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.
You can’t eliminate stress from your life, but how you can control what situations affect you. Activities such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness opposite the stress response. These activities can reduce your stress levels and boost feelings of calm and joy.
Eat a healthy diet
Foods can improve or affect your mood and your ability to cope with life’s stressors. For example, eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of stress. In contrast, a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and omega-3 fatty acids can help you better cope with life’s situations.
Being tired can increase stress by causing you to think irrationally. At the same time, chronic stress can disrupt your sleep. Whether you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, there are plenty of ways to overcome insomnia. It is vital to feeling emotionally balanced and being more productive.
These are just some of the many signs of stress you may be exhibiting. If you are thinking or feeling anything strange, it is worth contacting professional help to work through your stressful experience.
Knowledge is Wisdom
Be your own laboratory, notice the results as you make changes. Keep a diary or create a checklist of symptoms and actions that help manage your stress. Everybody is different; you are always going to know more about your body and experience than anyone else.
These are excerpts from Say No To Stress, A Practical Approach to Stress Management by Shirley Noah. The essential guide to stop the devastating effect of stress on your body.