We all get stressed, all the time. It is impossible not to, and that is just fine. What we call stress is usually the feeling that there is a lot going on. We need that feeling of stress to get in the right mindset to get stuff done. There is also the notion of positive stress: a certain level of stress can be beneficial for us. We need challenges, we need to get out of our comfort zones. Our bodies are made for a certain level of stress, not to just hang out and be completely calm and relaxed.
So how should you know if the stress you are experiencing is too much? Where is the point when positive stress turns into something negative, something harmful?
There are actually many signs that you should watch out for and these should signal you to start taking it easier. Take these signs seriously, because too much stress will lead to exhaustion and eventually to burn out, depression or another form of harm to your health.
Signs to watch out for
If we experience too much stress for an extended period of time, this negatively affects our cognitive abilities: it is harder to concentrate, memory recall is reduced, and we experience overall reduced cognitive processing. In the beginning we might just forget things that are not very important, but high stress levels over a long time period will also affect our memory for important things like appointments or promises we made or even names of people we know well.
Stress hormones affect the Hippocampus, a sensitive brain area that is necessary for retrieving memories and for building new ones. People with damage to the Hippocampus, for example after a stroke, are sometimes completely unable to learn and remember something new. Chronic stress alters the brain’s ability to adapt to new information. This can result in an actual decrease of hippocampal volume. Such structural changes are associated with impaired memory. Roughly said our brain encodes new memories by making new connection between neurons. But the neurons in the Hippocampus of stressed individuals have less connections with each other and less new neurons are being produced – which is the reason for memory problems in times of stress.
Another clear indicator is that we feel exhausted faster than we used to. This is true for physical as well as mental activities. We might also notice that it is harder to recover from physical and mental efforts. We need more or longer breaks, or might even feel like we simply can not fill up our batteries, no matter how long we are resting. This might in part be due to reduced sleep quality, which is another symptom of stress.
Of course prolonged periods of stress will also affect our mood. We become more easily irritated and angry. Noticing our lower energy level further affects the mood, because we might feel guilty or weak, when we can’t get as much done as usual. Normal requests from co-workers, friends or our partner suddenly feel demanding. Social interactions might become overwhelming and we begin to avoid social gatherings.
Another less intuitive consequence of stress can be a heightened sensitivity to noise, light or other sensory impressions. We might experience loud music as more disturbing or bright light as very unpleasant. This could be another, maybe even unconscious reason for us to withdraw from social situations and interactions.
When to act
Did any of the above symptoms resonate with you? If so, interpret these behaviors as signals and don’t ignore them – instead, react to them.
We are well equipped to handle some stress, even if you experience these signs in a more extreme form, you can still recover in time. It is normal to fluctuate through periods of high and low stress. Most of the time, we can regulate ourselves and get back on track. Unfortunately, after many ups and downs, and particularly when our coping strategies are unhealthy, we become vulnerable to a dangerous downward spiral. At some point our body and mind can not return to our previous healthy baseline. More stress will pile on leading to exhaustion, burn out and depression. Therefore it is always good to stay vigilant and detect symptoms of exhaustion. If you react early enough, you will still have the energy to make the necessary changes. If you wait too long, your recovery will take longer and you might not be able to manage on your own.
So give yourself some time to reflect on how you have dealt with stress in the past and try to evaluate, if you show any of the signs mentioned above. Master your own signs, and make sure these signals translate into taking action.
Not good at feeling your own mental states? Many are not, and it’s a skill that requires practice. Our advice is to ask friends, family or your partner. Often they can see your behavioral changes more objectively than you can. If they say your are irritable or angry, take a moment to evaluate the claim (this is difficult, but you have to assess the information you get, and taking even a moment makes all the difference).
If you notice that you suffer from too much stress, try to find the big source(s) of stress in your life, and try to recognize their effects to reduce their potential impact. If you know what helps you reduce stress, take active steps to implement that activity (e.g. exercise).
Also, keep reading our blog for more tips on a positive mindset and simple ways for reducing stress ;).
© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.