STRESS is part of our programming, that automatic fight or flight response that helps us dash for cover when we spot danger, or knuckle down to get jobs done.
It’s all thanks to that surge of hormones — including adrenaline and cortisol — our bodies produce when the brain registers it’s time for action.
Stress becomes a problem when it’s constant. When those adrenaline and cortisol surges are happening so frequently, and calm is not being adequately restored between ‘triggers’, that you eventually end up being in a constant fight-or-flight state. Here are some common symptoms to look out for:
Mood and character changes: When struggling with stress, it’s usual to feel you’ve lost your patience, and find yourself being irritable and snappy. “Long-term stress can increase irritability, aggression and anxiety,” says Emma Mamo, who specialises in workplace wellbeing. “It can lead to depression, poor concentration, and someone experiencing stress at work, for example, may struggle with seemingly simple tasks, including motivation, punctuality and decision-making.”
Feeling overwhelmed: Perhaps the clearest point that you’ve reached your stress tipping point is that desperate anxiety where you simply can’t handle any more on your plate. Things you’d normally be able to handle now make you teary and afraid that you can’t cope.
Excessive worrying: We’re programmed to worry — it keeps us safe and functioning. But when you’re suffering with stress, it’s not unusual to find you’re suddenly worrying much more and possibly having more negative thoughts than usual about things that may happen in the future, which may be a symptom of anxiety too.
Behaviour changes: Some people will stop their hobbies, avoid socialising, lose interest in things and neglect their physical appearance. Sometimes people might drink more, use drugs or binge-eat, for example, too.
Sleep disturbance: Stress makes it incredibly difficult to ‘switch off’, hence it is difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Our normal sleep cycle gets disrupted, so we do not enter the essential deep phases of sleep.
Exhaustion: Poor sleep inevitably leads to feeling drained the next day, but stress hormones can add to daytime fatigue too. When we’re stressed, our body is wired and this means our metabolism’s running at a faster rate. This will have the effect of draining our energy stores, hence we feel tired.
Palpitations: Being suddenly more aware of your heartbeat or feeling your heart’s racing, pounding or fluttering in your chest and throat — can be frightening, but it’s a common symptom in stress and anxiety and, most of the time, harmless. If you’re concerned, get it checked with your GP.
Weight loss or gain: Some people gain, while others lose weight when they’re stressed. This may be linked with a loss of appetite, or comfort eating, and may also be due to metabolic factors associated with stress-induced hormonal changes.
Headaches: Muscle tension is also a factor in headaches, as are the increased levels of stress hormones.
These affect brain chemistry and lead to less control over blood vessel regulation. This leads to inflammation and the associated pain of headaches, alongside a reduced capacity to process sensory information, such as sound and light.
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