There is a high level of co-morbidity among those with mental health and substance use…
Are You More Stressed Than You Realize?
A little stress is a good thing. It keeps us motivated, alert, and primed to respond to threat. You can thank it for prompting you to prepare for the job interview, for example, as well as for getting you out of the way of that speeding car.
Too much unregulated stress, however, and the mind and body begin to wear down under the strain. Repeated stress has been linked to a host of conditions: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic pain, anxiety, depression and substance use disorders, to name only a few.
Dealing with stress, then, is crucial. But sometimes it’s tricky to identify what you’re feeling as stress or to recognize how elevated your stress level has become. Further complicating a diagnosis is that stress is individual, revealing itself in different ways in different people. It might make one person unable to sit still, for example, while another finds it hard to move from the couch.
Research has identified a variety of signs that point to stress. These aren’t definitive indicators but they can be clues, and familiarity with them can help you pinpoint when your stress is building, allowing you to react before it spirals out of control.
Ask yourself if any of these hit home. If so, you may be dealing with more stress than you realize:
- When you breathe, your chest expands but not your belly, meaning you are taking shallow breaths rather than drawing air from deep within your body.
- When you make a conscious effort to relax your body, you realize your shoulders have been hunched high and your neck is tense. Your fists or your jaw might be clenched as well. As a result, your muscles ache.
- Your skin breaks out. Stress comes with a rise in the hormone cortisol, which can boost oil production in the skin and lead to blemishes and acne.
- You feel fatigued but have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep.
- You can’t turn off worry and find yourself ruminating or talking excessively about your concerns.
- You are physically shaky, perhaps with tremors or heart palpitations.
- You lose interest in sex.
- You experience a choking sensation or find it difficult to swallow.
- Your hair thins. Stress can cause the body to put hair growth on hold.
- You find yourself turning more often to substances such as alcohol, drugs and tobacco.
- You feel feverish. Recent research confirms that psychological stress, especially when chronic, can boost body temperature.
- When you wake, your mouth is clamped shut. You may realize you’ve been grinding your teeth in your sleep.
- Your nails are brittle and peeling or they develop white horizontal lines. You may also bite your nails. Another stress-related habit is rubbing the thumbnail with the fingers, which can cause a raised ridge to grow in the middle of the nail.
- You don’t laugh as often and feel as though you’ve lost your sense of humor.
- Decision-making becomes difficult, and it’s tough to finish tasks.
- Your digestive tract is troubled, perhaps by constipation, indigestion, diarrhea, and/or stomachache.
- You feel restless and fidgety.
- You find yourself struggling to rein in an attitude that can only be described as bossy, overly critical and judgmental.
- Your brain seems fuzzy. You have trouble concentrating, thinking clearly and remembering things.
- Your creativity feels dampened.
- You feel dizzy or lightheaded and may faint.
- You feel the need to be around other people — or to be left alone.
- Your emotions feel as though they are right on the surface, and you may experience irritability, anger, loneliness, weepiness, nervousness, anxiety and more.
- You feel unhappy but with no real cause, and former pursuits seem to lack meaning.
- You are eating more or less, and eating in response to emotion.
It’s the rare person who can’t check at least a few of the items on the list. The question is, are these symptoms ongoing or recurring, and are they interfering with the quality of your life? If so, it’s time to act.
But what to do? Just as stress is individual, dealing with it is individual as well. Some may benefit from socializing more, for example, while others get more relief from a solo walk in the woods. A variety of techniques are also available that can help you get back on track — among them, yoga, meditation, mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches you to challenge your negative thinking patterns.
An important first step, however, is visiting your doctor, who can help you determine what you’re really dealing with and the best course of action. It’s important to note that while all the indicators may point to stress, these signs can sometimes mask other conditions.
Stress can’t be eliminated, but we can learn to recognize it when it comes, manage it and get it back to its rightful place in our lives — as an aid to our efforts rather than the destroyer of them.
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