Stressed – How do you know if you are?

Disclaimer: Please be advised that this blog is in no way a substitute for medical advice. If you suspect that you are prone to stress-related illness, or if you are in any doubt about the state of your health, you should take appropriate medical or professional advice immediately.

Your nervous system isn’t very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. If you’re super stressed over an argument with someone who you are close to, a work deadline, loan to repay, or a mountain of bills, your body can react just as strongly as if you’re facing a true life-or-death situation.

And the more your fight or flight stress response system is activated, the easier it becomes to trigger, making it harder to shut off.

If you are a person who tends to get stressed out frequently, like many of us in today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, your body may exist in a heightened state of stress most of the time.

This can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process.

It can even leave you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

Stress man

Mostly the talk around stress is about the negative consequences and how it impacts our physical and mental health.   This leads us to believe that all ‘stress’ is bad. This is not true!

There is something called ‘positive stress’ which is also known as ‘Eustress’.

Eustress is something which helps you get motivated and focuses your energy towards higher levels of performance. This is similar to the stress a sprinter feels before a 100m dash.  It is short-term and gets your adrenaline pumped. Eustress is also something which accompanies a belief that you have the necessary skill sets, knowledge and coping ability for achievement. When you have positive stress, you are excited about doing something.  For example, pursuing something which you are passionate about, like adventure sports or even some art forms.

Some examples of eustress include things like; taking a vacation, buying a new property, first day of joining a job, marriage, birth of a child, receiving an award or recognition, and the opportunity to take up a hobby.

For me personally, I go through eustress symptoms just before I address a large gathering, before publishing my blog or podcast.  It primes me to plan, prepare and present in the best possible way I can.

Eustress and the state of “Flow”

When you are operating in your “area of best performance”, you are normally able to concentrate, and focus all of your attention on the important task at hand. When you do this without distraction, you often enter what Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes as a state of ‘flow’.

This involves “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.

You perform at your best in this state because you are able to focus all of your efforts, resources and abilities on the tasks at hand. While you are sufficiently motivated to resist competing temptations, you are not so stressed with anxieties and distractions that interfere with clear thought.

This is an intensely creative, efficient and satisfying state of mind. It is the state of mind in which, for example, the most persuasive speeches are made, the best software is developed, and the most impressive athletic or artistic performances are delivered.

However, frequent and prolonged period of stressful situations may adversely affect your health.  This is what we call the negative stress or a state of ‘distress’

Let’s start by looking at some of the health problems which are caused or intensified by stress.  While there are many physical manifestations of distress which we would have experienced like, aches and pains, lack of sleep, digestive problems, skin conditions and cardio-vascular disease; I would like to focus more on the cognitive and emotional symptoms of distress.

While many of us think and choose to believe that we know a lot about stress and how to go about coping with it, we must care to re-evaluate and learn more.

The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of distress.

There are three types of distress symptoms that you may experience, the cognitive type, the emotional type and the behavioral type.

The cognitive type of distress symptoms could include things like inability to concentrate, memory problems, poor judgment of situations, seeing only the negative, constant fear or worry and incoherent thought process.

The emotional distress symptoms could include generally finding yourself unhappy about life, anxiety and agitation, frequent mood swings, feeling lonely, irritability and angry outbursts.

The behavioral symptoms of distress affects your behavior and you may experience symptoms like social withdrawal, eating more or less, avoiding work or procrastinating, not taking up responsibilities, nervous habits like nail biting, pacing up and down without any purpose, using stimulants like drugs, alcohol, smoking, excessive caffeine etc.

What causes stress?

We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a new home, graduating from college, or receiving a recognition or reward.

However, not all stress may be caused by such external factors or events. Stress can also be internal or self-created.  Internal stressors could be like, when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational and pessimistic thoughts about life.

What causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it.

Something that’s stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it. While some of us are terrified of speaking before a group while, others live for the spotlight. Where one person thrives under pressure and performs best in the face of a tight deadline, another will shut down when work demands increase. We also find that while some enjoy the responsibility of helping and caring for elderly parents, some may find the demands of caretaking overwhelming and at times stressful.

Some of the major external events for causing stress are relationship issues, job or work related, committing to more than what is realistically possible, children and family, financial problems or sudden life changing experiences like loss of a loved one etc.

Internal causes of stress could be pessimism and excessive and negative self-talk, perfectionism, inability to accept uncertainties, lack of flexibility and rigidity of thoughts, unrealistic expectations and frequent comparisons with others.

You must know that whatever event or situation is stressing you out, there are ways of coping with the problem and regaining your balance.

However, it is important for you to spend some time and reflect on the factors which are causing stress in you, learn to identify some of the symptoms we talked about, and stop living in denial of the one’s which are affecting you negatively or distressful.

I recommend keeping a ‘Stress Diary’ which you can use to keep a log of situations which cause you to stress out daily.  You will be surprised at the benefits.  You will start to feel a sense of control.

It’s time you took stress seriously!

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