Stress happens — there's no way around it. It's your body's natural reaction to thoughts or events that make you feel threatened or in danger. And when you perceive a threat in your life, whether real or imagined, your nervous system activates with a "fight or flight" response, releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to help you better handle an emergency situation. In small doses stress can be good, helping you perform like a pro under a looming deadline at work or acting as a motivator to be your best when the moment calls for it. But prolonged stress can take a toll on your body. Here's how to tell if you're suffering from too much of it.
Crying, Mood Swings and No Energy
Our modern lives are chock-full of stressful events. But when you reach your breaking point, it's time to check in on your emotional well-being. "Emotional signs of stress can include difficulty concentrating, frequent tearfulness and mood swings, disorganization, difficulty making decisions and a general lack of energy," says Sudeepta Varma, MD, a board certified psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Keep in mind that these stress signs can also be related to other psychological problems, so it's important to see your doctor and find out if your symptoms are, in fact, stress-related.
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Pain, Skin and Digestive Problems
Is that big project giving you a headache? Does constant bickering with a loved have your stomach in knots? Sometimes stress can manifest itself with physical symptoms that literally make you feel sick. They can include things like chronic back pain, neck pain, chest pain, rashes, hives, breathing problems, constipation and diarrhea. "When you begin to see a pattern of these physical changes happening in your body from stress, it's time to see a doctor," says Varma. "Left untreated they can lead to long-term health problems that may result in missed days at work and even more visits to the doctor."
Anxiety, Worry and Guilt
Anxious and racing thoughts are the pits. And sometimes too much stress can be the cause. Whether you're worried about a relative who's ill in the hospital or you can't overcome the fear of finding a new job, it's important to understand that stress and anxiety are often interlinked. "People with a history of anxiety tend to struggle with stress more, which is why they need to watch out for the disorder getting worse," says Varma. If you find there's no escape from your worries, and your anxiety has lasted more than six months, it could be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Seeing your doctor can help you find out for sure.
Irritability, Anger and Frustration
If your child accidentally spills her orange juice during the morning rush to get out the door, how do you respond? If you react to her unintentional bout of butterfingers with anger and frustration, ask yourself: Is too much stress giving me a shorter fuse? Some people are more inclined to respond to stress by getting angry, irritable or frustrated. "They become absolutely floored by stress, but need to learn to become more flexible in order to decrease their stress level," says Varma. Anger is a normal emotion that everyone feels at one point or another. But if you let it spin out of control, it can have a negative impact on your relationships, health and overall state of mind.
Depression or Overwhelming Sadness
You know stress can put you in a bad mood or make your temper flare. But left unchecked, it can also lead to depression -- especially if you've battled depression before. If your sadness is all-encompassing every day, and you feel lifeless or empty inside, depression may be the cause. "Changes in appetite, feelings of worthlessness and even thoughts of death or suicide are also common symptoms of depression," says Varma. Some people may experience sleep problems, feelings of anger, lack of concentration and also exhibit signs of reckless behavior, such as substance abuse. The key is to seek help from a healthcare professional right away.
Social Isolation and Loneliness
Has too much stress led you to withdraw from others? Solitude has its benefits. But if you're withdrawing from life so much that you feel lonely or all alone, it's time to seek support from people you trust. "It's easy to isolate yourself following a stressful event, but you have to remember to make an effort to connect with others," says Varma. Simply put, isolation is not the answer to dealing with stress. Instead, talking to someone about your problems and feeling support can help reduce stress, along with loneliness. So, don't be afraid to turn to others, including friends, family, pets, or a support group or counselor as part of your stress relief plan.
Sleep helps you recharge so you can tackle the responsibilities of your day. But when stress swings beyond your control, it may be hard to come by. A lack of sleep produces a domino effect by boosting your level of stress, which then causes you to think irrationally, making stress harder to cope with and raising your risk of pain, injury and other health problems. Says Varma, "Exercising three to five times each week definitely helps. Mix it up with some cardio and strength training, and even some yoga if possible." Setting aside time to relax, eating a healthy diet and keeping your sleep space cool, dark and quiet can also help you sleep better.
Low Sex Drive
Can't get your mind off that less-than-desirable monthly sales report? What's worse, it's affecting your love life and your partner's feelings. Warm up that cold shoulder by getting more intimate in the bedroom. Studies show that making more time for love can equate to less stress in your life. How? It helps release those "feel good" hormones in your body — like oxytocin — and improves your self-esteem and overall outlook on life. And it may strengthen your immune system, too. Remember, stress doesn't have to run your life as long as you find ways to take control of it. "See a therapist if you need to," says Varma. "The key to all of this is to not wait until your problems spin out of control."