Stress is fine in small doses–in fact, it’s a natural and necessary hormonal response that encourages your body and mind to activate appropriately when required. We can avoid danger, perform at a high level, maintain sharp focus, and react swiftly to urgent situations all thanks to our quick-acting stress response system.
When functioning normally, the stress response shuts down or "deactivates" automatically. For example, you might be anxious about giving a presentation at work; once it’s over, however, your worries vanish. Your heart may pound before competing in a road race; after crossing the finish line you are quickly able to unwind. If you run a stop sign, it might take a bit of driving before you stop sweating, but you’ll be happily singing to the radio just a few blocks later.
These are examples of how short-term functional stress can help us with performance, attention and safety. Chronic stress is different; it builds up slowly over time. What happens is this: stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) are released, over and over again, in non-threatening situations or by a series of inappropriate triggers. When your autonomic nervous system is activated continuously or repeatedly by "false alarms," it forgets how and when to turn itself off. A body overloaded with adrenaline and cortisol is a body suffering from chronic stress.
Chronic stressors can be obvious–traumatic events, worrisome thoughts, long-term illness–but stress might also sneak up on you in subtle, more indirect ways. Imagine someone holding a water balloon over your head as you try to fall asleep. Can you relax or get comfortable? Of course not! What if the balloon were held over your head every night for a whole week? You might never get to sleep–even when the balloon is removed it could take days before you are able to let the go of the fear of being soaked. Although the threat is gone, your body responds as if the threat is still impending–that’s the nature of chronic stress.
Continual cell phone interruptions, inconsolable babies crying, anger-infused environments, lingering financial woes, challenging interpersonal relationships, background noise–you name it–if it’s regularly bothering you, there is a good chance it’s causing you some degree of chronic stress. Living on high alert? It’s time to pay attention to the warning signs. Here are five general ways stress-related symptoms can manifest, and some examples of each:
Sleep Disturbances or Agitation:
Insomnia or not sleeping well Can’t get comfortable Tossing and turning Disturbing dreams Trouble falling asleep Frequent waking Chronic fatigue Over-agitation during the day
Health or Physical Problems:
Getting sick frequently Unable to shake the cold or flu Compromised immune system Chronic symptoms or illness flare up Unexplained headache, stomachache or chest pains Tight muscles Muscle soreness or cramping Diminished sex drive
Emotional Symptoms or Changes in Mood:
Lack of energy Getting overwhelmed Pessimism or hopelessness Feeling isolated or detached Anxiety Easily upset or crying uncontrollably Loss of enjoyment Unwarranted anger and irritability Depression or feelings of worthlessness
Increase in Addictive Behaviors:
Overeating Undereating Poor judgment Increase in alcohol, tobacco, or drug use Grinding teeth Biting nails
Trouble Thinking or Concentrating:
Obsessive thoughts Concentration issues Disorganization Debilitating anxiety Avoidance behaviors Feeling like you are losing control Forgetfulness
The more symptoms you are having, the higher your chronic stress level might be. Check-in to see what stressors are troubling you at home or work; assess any health, financial, emotional or spiritual concerns, too. If the "low gas" warning light illuminates while you’re cruising down the highway, don’t keep going! It’s an important signal–stop and fill up the tank before you run out of gas. Similarly, if the "chronic stress" warning signs are flashing–get off the stress highway–see a doctor, consult with a therapist, learn relaxation techniques or talk to a friend. Get your stress response system back online; it’s too important to ignore.