Recognize Your Stress Levels

In 2013, I wrote a blog post called 10 Warning Signs You’re Doing Too Much. It has been my most popular blog post ever since. It’s a sign of our times. We are all under stress almost all the time. The pressure to be more, do more, have more is intense. Add to that legitimate fears about your (or a loved one’s) physical, emotional, or financial safety and your stress levels are higher. Then there are community and political stressors. Your stress levels today may not be exhausting, but tomorrow they could be. And when you live with stress every day, you may not recognize your stress levels and how they affect your life.

Image of young woman of color sitting on the floor back against the sofa, hands covering her face--do you recognize your stress levels?

What is Stress?

In a medical or biological context, stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the “fight or flight” response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems.

What Causes Stress 

Each one of us faces challenges every day. From traffic jams, to spills, demanding bosses, unsympathetic spouses, or life crises (relationships, financial, or health). And we each respond to the stress in our life differently. Some of us can handle more stress than others. But all of us have biological responses to the stress we face. 

Under stress our body, specifically our adrenal glands, release hormones. Cortisol, also called the stress hormone, regulates several things. Read more about Cortisol on WebMD. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (also called Adrenaline) are catecholamines. The adrenal glands also release catecholamines when you are physically or emotionally stressed. These hormones help your body go into the fight-or-flight response. 

Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.

Etty Hillesum

When the fight or flight isn’t an appropriate response, such as in a work situation, the fight-or-flight response may distort into physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral signs. Do you have any of these signs of stress?

Physical Signs of Stress

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

Emotional Signs of Stress

  • Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
  • Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
  • Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
  • Avoiding others

Doing something that is productive is a great way to alleviate emotional stress. Get your mind doing something that is productive.

Ziggy Marley

Cognitive Signs of Stress

  • Constant worrying
  • Racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness and disorganization
  • Inability to focus
  • Poor judgment
  • Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.

William James

Behavioral Signs of Stress

  • Changes in appetite—either not eating or eating too much
  • Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
  • Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing

We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.

John Newton

Many thanks to WebMD for the lists of symptoms of stress.

How to Relieve Our Stress

In times of life crisis, whether wild fires or smoldering stress, the first thing I do is go back to basics… am I eating right, am I getting enough sleep, am I getting some physical and mental exercise every day?

Edward Albert

First, you must recognize your stress levels. You must know when you are under stress that is affecting your physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral well-being. (see the symptoms above or the 10 Warning Signs). Then you as Edward Albert said, go back to basics. The basics are important. If you aren’t eating right or getting enough sleep and exercise, you won’t handle the stress as well as you might wish.

You are braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

From “Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin” (1997) by  Karl Geurs and Carter Crocker

There are events and pressures that may be out of your control. But when you recognize your stress levels, you can decrease your signs of stress. Take Christopher Robin’s words to heart. You are Braver and Stronger and Smarter than you think. You can handle what you must. Stay tuned next week for tips on how to reduce your stress. 

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