Freedom from Stress - Part 2
WHAT DOES STRESS LOOK LIKE?
In last week’s article I defined stress as mental or emotional strain you experience due to any tension-causing situation. The word “stress” is also used to describe challenges that bring about feelings of anxiety, tension, or worry.
This week we will look at some common symptoms of unhealthy chronic stress and some of the not-so-helpful ways we tend to deal with it.
Although stress is a universal feeling, your own reaction to your emotions is unique to you. To help you identify your unique stress “fingerprint,” here are some common symptoms of unhealthy chronic stress:
- Recurring physical ailments such as headaches, stomachaches, and neck and shoulder pain often occur whenever you’re feeling tense and anxious.
- Being in a rush. Do you feel like you’re always in a hurry? Is there not enough time in the day to accomplish everything that must be done? Do you find yourself rushing to get from one place to another? Are you frequently impatient with other people? You might be experiencing symptoms of stress.
- Can’t take a break. If you notice you’re finishing one task only to proceed directly to the next one and then the one after that, you’re probably experiencing stress. One clue is that you think that you are unable to stop to rest. Humans are designed to have periods of activity interspersed with periods of rest. If you can’t allow yourself this basic need, chances are good that you’re operating under stress.
- Recurrent symptoms of chronic illnesses. Chronic stress causes certain medical conditions (diabetes, chemical dependency, Crohn’s Disease, or obesity, for example) to get progressively worse. Symptoms rage. Our physical bodies manifest the challenges of our emotional experience.
- Overwhelming fatigue. While fatigue can be a symptom of depression or an underlying medical condition, stress can also cause fatigue. You may find that you are tired during the day, but you can’t sleep at night. You may feel as though you’re pulling a dead weight everywhere you go. You’re not sure how you’re making it through each day because you’re so exhausted.
- Negative emotional states. Stress can effect your mood. If you find that you are frequently grumpy, sullen, or angry, stress may be the culprit.
- Attitude changes. How's your attitude? Perhaps your outlook on life is negative. You assume things won’t go well. You feel yourself slowly starting to give up. You feel like you don’t care anymore about that relationship, job, or family situation. The key here is that, if you take a close look at your attitude, you’re shocked that you feel this way about something or someone that’s so important to you.
- Episodes of crying. Do you feel like crying all the time? Are you crying more than usual? Do you feel like you struggle to get your emotions under control? If so, you may want to look at your stress level.
- Troubled work relationships. Are you experiencing struggles in your relationships with your co-workers or your boss? While most people experience challenges at times, many experience these challenges more pointedly when feeling stressed.
- Angry or irritated with your children and/or spouse. Do your children avoid you because you point out every little mistake they make? Maybe you’ve even been more reactive when they make a mistake. Does your spouse constantly wonder if something's wrong or do they walk around on “eggshells” when you’re around?
- Obsessive thinking. Do you feel like your mind is stuck in a loop? Are you obsessing over the smallest details. For example, you believe you must make a homemade cake with fancy frosting instead of box mix or bakery cake for your Mom’s birthday. You’re the only person who can detail your car and “do it right.”
- Feelings of futility. When you’re under pressure, do you feel that no matter what you do, you can’t get anything don? do you feel like a hamster on an exercise wheel when you’re under stress: going nowhere, fast.
Examine the above list and see what you notice about yourself when you’re under pressure. Which signs do you show? Take note of how stress manifests in your life. The more awareness you have about your unique expression of stress, the better your ability to manage it effectively.
UNHEALTHY WAYS YOU MIGHT BE MANAGING STRESS
First, the not-so-good news: you might be addressing your stress in ways that aren’t helpful. Here are some signs that you may be able to choose more constructive ways of handling your stress:
- Overuse of substances. Many people turn to their substance of choice when they feel stressed. Don’t be surprised if you’re smoking more cigarettes than usual, drinking more alcohol, or taking over-the-counter sleeping pills every single night. Stress may be encouraging you to turn more often to your preferred substances in a effort to make yourself feel better. I call this buffering.
- Nutritional intake is imbalanced. Although we have different ways of doing this, many of us start making poor dietary choices when we’re experiencing stress.
- You might be eating fast food when your schedule feels overcrowded. To avoid having to cook your own meals, you find yourself in a line for fast food on your way home several times a week. This adds to your body’s stress level by eating nutritiously inadequate foods.
- Are you skipping meals here and there and even getting a little light-headed sometimes from lack of food. Stress can either cause you to forget to eat (you’re too busy) or not want to eat (you’re too tense). If this is the case, protein bars and shakes can be a tasty, fast way to ensure you get your needed calories.
- Instead of skipping meals, are you over-eating to soothe stress. This is another form of buffering. Food can act as medication, and many of us abuse it for this very reason. When you have an urge to eat, ask yourself if a big, green salad sounds good right now. If not, you’re probably not actually hungry.
- Inappropriate remarks and communication. Perhaps you’re short-tempered with others and use cryptic or sarcastic comments to express yourself. Or perhaps your response to stress may be to close out people emotionally and give them the "silent treatment."
Spend a few minutes to reflect on ways you might be mishandling your stress. Vow to stop your use of unhealthy substances when you’re stressed out—get help to do so if necessary. Look at your eating habits to ensure you’re nourishing yourself well.
Finally, tune in to your verbal communications to ensure you’re expressing yourself in appropriate ways. Remember that when you’re under pressure, you could be engaging in habits and behaviors that serve to stoke the fires of stress rather than put them out!
“Often when a person can't get past stress, she will turn to overeating, drinking, or smoking, which can become a greater problem than the stress itself.” –Marilu Henner
Now that you’ve read about some less-than-helpful ways to deal with stress, it’s time to learn some of the best ways to manage stress. You have abundant choices for effectively managing stress. In Part 3 of this series on stress, I will discuss specific strategies for dealing effectively with stress. Until then, take care of yourself, take note of your unique fingerprint of stress, and, if you want help right away, please don’t hesitate on contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org