Am I Stressed?
Life is fun. Life is tricky. Life can sometimes throw demands our way that can just get a little bit too much on top of us. Usually, we can handle those demands with only short, intermittent bursts of frantic activity and feelings of overwhelm. However, at times it gets a bit much and we start to experience stress. Stress is a natural response to life events that we deem threatening, and is caused by a physiological reaction involving the hormone cortisol.
Cortisol is released when the body (and mind) prepares for action in response to threat or fear - known as the fight-or-flight response and leads to elevated heart rates and the release of other hormones which can help us in those situations. Often, this can help us attain goals and get the job done. When we have obtained said goal, or gotten the job done, cortisol levels tend to decrease. Sometimes we may not have a clear goal in sight, or the stress is general, meaning that our cortisol levels are more elevated than necessary over a prolonged period of times. This puts pressure on your body and can have a number of adverse effects on both body and mind. When our cortisol levels are elevated, it temporarily suppresses functions that are less important in a threatening situation - such as your immune system (responsible for keeping you disease-free) and growth processes.
But how do you know if you’re stressed, or if you’re simply goal-oriented?
When stressed, you may experience a number of psychological and physical symptoms. Let’s take a look at some of the more common ones.
- You are more irritable than usual.
Small things that normally wouldn’t bother you are suddenly the source of immense irritation. You can’t believe your partner left the kitchen light on AGAIN, Susan’s tapping the keyboard like she’s practising the organ and tears of frustration start pouring as you realise there’s no milk for the tea. Stress may be making you hypervigilant for sources of threat in your environment and you could be in constant “fight-mode”, ready to snap at the first opportunity.
- You feel overburdened.
Stress can result from various different factors, including pressures at work, deadlines, exams, arguments with friends or partners - the list goes on. Whatever it is that may have contributed to your experience of stress, it is likely to feel overwhelming and like you have too much going on. As our high levels of stress hormones continue to be present even in the face of no obvious threat, you may feel like things are getting on top of you, there’s no escape and things are simply too much. Perhaps you have indeed taken too much on - or been allocated an unfair amount - which obviously won’t help your feeling overburdened.
- You struggle to sit still.
With your threat-mode firmly switched on, you may find yourself restless and struggling to stay in one place. You could find yourself constantly trying to get rid of nervous energy with no clear direction, thus finding it exceedingly hard to stay in one spot. Perhaps you also feel fidgety, so that even when you do manage to stay in your chair for an extended period of time, your bouncing your legs or tapping your desk. With no real aggressor or threat to take your energy out on, other outlets, such as those just mentioned, will have to do.
- You worry more.
We can have a tendency to go over the same old thoughts over and over again - perhaps getting stuck in thought patterns such as “What if I hadn’t said that thing” or “If only things could have turned out differently”, or we find ourselves trying to solve unsolvable problems (since they may not currently be problems and may never be!). This process is called rumination, a word that comes from the process cows go through when they swallow food, only to regurgitate it and chew it all over again. When we’re stressed we can easily find ourselves engaging in this process of rumination, sometimes as a way of distancing ourselves from our currently stressful reality, by wishing that things were different, or perhaps as a way of trying to protect ourselves against future potentially threatening situations. For example, worrying about what to say to your manager when you haven’t shown up for that all-important meeting.
- You feel tired all the time.
Experiencing stress may affect your sleep. Usually, our cortisol levels tend to be highest during the morning (around 9am) and decrease as we are nearing bedtime, only to start rising again throughout a few hours after we’ve fallen asleep(Bradley & Hudson, 2010). When we’re stressed, those levels may be unusually high at night which can disrupt our ability to go, or to stay, asleep. This could also have an impact on the quality of your sleep, making you feel more fatigued in the morning. As we will all probably be familiar with, feeling tired can make everything seem infinitely more difficult (and everyone more irritating!). Also, you may find yourself worrying that you are not getting enough sleep, making nighttime itself a source of stress.
…so, am I stressed?
Any of the above symptoms experienced for a prolonged period of time may be signs that you are stressed, or that you’re experiencing chronic stress. These symptoms are not exhaustive, and everyone’s experience of stress is unique, even though it often correlates with symptoms other people have as well. Also, remember that feeling stressed from time to time is a normal response to life’s demands. However, if present for a long time this response can start having an impact on our day-to-day life. We will consider some tips on how we can manage stress in our next post.