5 signs you might be experiencing chronic stress
Chronic stress is when someone has been suffering from the physical and mental effects of excessive pressure and strain over a prolonged period of time. This is something we may begin to experience as the coronavirus pandemic continues, for example. Because stress can have a negative impact on our health and wellbeing, it’s vital that we can identify the signs and take steps to address the problem. This isn’t always easy – some people will know that their behaviour and feelings have changed, but not realise that stress is the underlying cause.
Here are the five signs to look out for.
1. Physical changes – in the short-term, when something happens to trigger your stress you might notice an increased heart rate, that your muscles are tense, or that your breathing gets faster. Some people feel sick or get butterflies in their stomach. In the longer term you could find you suffer from recurrent headaches, stomach aches and skin complaints – for example a flare up of eczema or psoriasis.
Physical signs might be the most obvious ones, but stress might not necessarily be the first cause that comes to mind; you might assume they’re due to a purely physical complaint.
2. New thoughts – you could be bothered by negative thoughts, which are often repetitive. These might include things like “I can’t cope”, “there’s too much to do”, or “there’s nobody to help me”.
3. Emotional changes – these are very common, but will be different for everybody. You might notice that you’ve been feeling more irritable, frustrated, angry, restless, down, upset or weepy than normal.
4. Behavioural shifts – some people start to do things they didn’t do before as a coping mechanism, such as drinking more caffeine or alcohol, which will probably make the stress worse. Avoiding tasks and problems is also common, for example putting off having a tricky conversation, or leaving your emails unopened. Sleeping patterns can also alter; you might find it hard to get off to sleep because your mind is whirring, or wake up during the night.
5. Other people have noticed – it’s likely that others around you may have observed that you’re not yourself, even if you haven’t! Has anyone commented that you seem stressed or unhappy lately? Perhaps it’s been less direct, with people asking if you’re ok?
These feelings, thoughts, symptoms and behaviours often end up becoming a ‘vicious cycle’, with one leading to another. Psychological therapist Joanne Adams explains: “If someone is finding it hard to cope with everything they need to do, this might cause physical symptoms. These might in turn result in feelings of helplessness, which may make them want to put tasks off. Things will then pile up, leading to increased stress and reinforcing the cycle.”
For example, someone who has a lot on their plate right now – working from home, home schooling the kids, perhaps shopping for a neighbour – could feel like they can’t manage. Feeling emotionally overwhelmed might lead to physical exhaustion. If they then avoid some of the chores on their list, they might start to feel guilty. This may lead to them feeling more tired, putting off more tasks…and the cycle continues.
“We certainly don’t have to accept stress as ‘the way things are’,” continues Joanne Adams. “It’s not always possible to change the circumstances in which we find ourselves – especially now – but we can break the pattern we’ve got stuck in and manage our stress response.”
In the next blog we’ll share some techniques and strategies for doing this. You might also want to consider cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can help you to map out and understand your own particular ‘vicious cycle’, and equip you with tools and strategies to address it. You can self-refer for online CBT, without waiting, and it’s just as effective as face-to-face therapy.