April is Stress Awareness Month. Stress is a common word used a lot these days, but do we understand when we are stressed? Emotional symptoms of anxiety are expressed inwardly, which means most people don’t realise what the emotional signs of stress are, and often fail to recognise them.
A little stress in small doses can be a good thing, and it can help you to perform under pressure or motivate you to do your best. However, if you are frequently frazzled and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. By learning how to recognise the signs and symptoms of chronic emotional stress, you can take steps to reduce the harmful effects stress is having on your health and wellbeing.
What is Stress?
To understand the symptoms and actions to reduce stress, we first need to understand what stress is. Stress is the body’s natural reaction to danger – whether real or imagined – which starts an automatic process known as the “Fight or Flight” reaction or the “Stress-response”.
The idea is that the body is protecting you from danger, flooding the system with stress hormones that allow us to prepare to fight or flee a dangerous situation, like an encounter with a wild animal. Your heart pounds faster, your muscles tighten, and your senses become sharpened which increases your strength, stamina and focus.
In a modern world, the threat of dangerous animals is virtually non-existent, but this process can still help to save your life in emergencies, such as slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident. It can also help you to meet daily challenges, for example, help you to focus on a presentation at work, allows athletes to win races, motivates you to study for an exam, or plan a wedding.
In an ideal world, we then release these stress hormones by being physically active (the process of running from danger burned off those hormones and levels returned to normal). Today, stress levels can continue to increase until chronic or long-term stress starts to affect our health, including our moods, productivity, relationships and quality of life.
The Emotional signs of chronic stress
Your nervous system is not very good at determining the difference between real and imagined threats, so an argument with a friend, a work deadline, or making a speech can be as stressful as a real life-threatening situation. The more stressful situations you face, the easier it becomes to trigger the stress response, and the harder it becomes to avoid chronic stress and the accompanying health issues.
Chronic stress disrupts every system in your body, and in a fast-paced modern world, we are in a heightened state of stress most of the time, depressing our immune systems, upsetting our delicate digestive systems, and leaving us vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
The most worrying aspect is that most of us don’t even release how stressed we are; it starts to feel “normal”, and you stop noticing how it’s affecting you. That’s why it’s important to be aware of common signs that can warn us we are reaching dangerous levels of stress overload.
Emotional symptoms include:
Depression or general unhappiness – created from feelings of isolation and overwhelm.
Fatigue and sleep disorders – some people can’t sleep at all (insomnia) while others over-sleep.
Anxiety and agitation – anxiety and stress often go hand in hand, but anxiety is more chronic and usually stems from an overactive imagination.
Moodiness, irritability or anger – if you have difficulty controlling your mood swings, this is a sign of stress overload, and irritability can be an early sign of depression.
Forgetfulness – research has found that chronic stress can cause brain cells to shrink and wither, leading to memory-related issues.
Loneliness and emotional isolation – some people think nobody cares, whereas others are scared to show their vulnerability, but despite social connections being an essential part of our wellbeing, many people isolate themselves during difficult times.
Improve your emotional well-being
If you are experiencing any of the emotional symptoms of stress, then you should consider doing something to change your current state and improve your emotional well-being. Sometimes, just taking a short holiday can be enough to break the cycle, but at other times we need better strategies to cope with the daily stresses of life.
Just recognising these emotions and their attachment to stress can help you to take action and intervene. Here are some ways to reduce emotional stress and improve your wellbeing.
#1 - Get moving
As we have already discussed, when we are in “fight or flight” mode, traditionally we would burn off the stress hormones by using our bodies to stand and fight or run away from the danger, so it makes sense that incorporating physical activity into our lives can help to manage our stress levels.
Regular exercise can also help to lift your mood and distract you from worries, helping to reduce the emotional symptoms of stress and break the negative thought cycle. Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming and dancing are particularly effective.
#2 – Connect with others
If our ancestors were faced with danger, they would run back to camp, and discuss the events of the day with family and friends over the campfire, allowing the level of stress hormones in their bodies to return to normal.
The simple act of talking with another human being can reduce stress when you are feeling agitated. Even a few kind words and a smile or two can help to calm and soothe the nervous system. So, don’t let your responsibilities stop you from enjoying the company of people who make you feel good. If you don’t have a robust social network, make it a priority to build healthy and satisfying connections with people.
#3 – Learn how to relax
I’m often surprised by the number of clients who find it hard to switch off and relax these days. You can’t eliminate all stress from your life, and neither would you want to, but learning some simple relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises can increase your ability to cope with stress, helping you to stay calm under pressure.
#4 – Get plenty of rest
Sometimes, it’s a catch 22; when you are stressed you might find it difficult to fall asleep, or stay asleep, but then being overtired can exasperate the symptoms of stress. Feelings of irritability, depression, and controlling emotions such as anger can be much harder when we are tired. There are plenty of ways to improve your sleep – try signing up for my 7-day better sleep challenge – so you feel less stressed and more emotionally balanced.
Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one - Hans Selye
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