The results are in from the American Psychological Association’s latest "Stress in America” survey, and frankly, they're distressing. Our stress levels are at “alarming levels” due to issues like the ongoing pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and rising inflation. These society-wide stressors are on top of the personal stress we deal with each day, from strains at work and taking care of kids to dealing with traffic and difficult people.
Chronic, unmanaged stress leads to all kinds of problems, like depression and anxiety. The first step in managing our stress is to recognize it.
Knowing Is Half the Battle
It can be surprisingly hard to see how chronic stress is affecting us, partly due to all the different ways it can show up. When we’re highly stressed, the adrenal glands release stress hormones into the bloodstream that travel throughout the body, affecting every part of our being—mind, body, behavior, and emotions.
We also don’t notice how stressed we are because our bodies are good at rising to the challenge—for a while. This “adaptation” phase of the stress response involves the ongoing release of stress hormones like cortisol, which are designed to help us keep going through high levels of stress.
As a result, we often unwittingly ignore our mounting stress load, since it seems like we’re coping just fine. Eventually, however, we start to wear down, as I found after years of letting my own stress levels go unchecked (which ultimately caught up with me). In hindsight, it was obvious that I needed to do more to take care of myself and reduce the sources of my stress.
By noticing the signs earlier, we can ease our stress levels before they get too high, and avoid a major crash. Here are 18 signs to look for (adapted from The CBT Flip Chart):
Body and Behavior
1. Muscle Tension: Stress causes our muscles to prepare for action. Over time, they can become chronically tense, which feeds back into our minds and reinforces a sense of threat and unease.
2. Poor Sleep: Our brains know it’s not good to be unconscious and vulnerable when we’re in danger, so sleep is often the first casualty of elevated stress. Difficulty sleeping often becomes an additional source of stress when we’re wired but so tired.
3. Headaches: Stress can trigger tension headaches as well as migraines. Lack of sleep doesn’t help.
4. Digestive Problems: The parasympathetic nervous system is the antidote to the fight/flight/freeze response, and is nicknamed the “rest and digest” response because it facilitates healthy digestion. Common effects of stress include diarrhea and constipation.
5. Drug/Alcohol Use: Like so many people, I drank more alcohol when I was under a lot of stress. It’s an understandable way that we try to cope, since it acts on the same neurotransmitter system as sedatives like benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax).
Unfortunately relying on alcohol for stress relief often leads to its own set of problems.
6. Social Withdrawal: Dealing with people can just feel like too much when we’re stressed, so we often tend to pull away. In the process, we can miss out on the social support that’s so important for regulating our stress and keeping our mood up.
7. Cluttered Thoughts: It’s hard to think clearly when there’s so much on our minds and we’re trying not to drop any of the mental balls we’re juggling.
8. Feeling Scattered: High stress makes it feel like we’re being stretched thin as we’re pulled in many directions. As a result, it seems like we have too few resources to handle all the demands.
9. Distractibility: Stress makes it harder to focus our attention on one thing, as we’re easily pulled from one crisis or threat to the next.
10. Poor Concentration: It’s hard to focus when we’re being bombarded by lots of thoughts and are fearful of making a mistake or forgetting something.
11. Memory Problems: Speaking of forgetting, stress has negative effects on a brain structure called the hippocampus, which makes it harder to encode and recall new memories.
12. Overwhelm: The overarching feeling when we’re stressed out is that it’s all too much, and that we don't have the resources to meet the challenges.
13. Discouragement: Constant strain leads to feeling disheartened and dispirited as we feel like we can’t keep up with the demands.
14. Low Enthusiasm: This is when everything seems like too much; even things we normally would enjoy can feel like an unwelcome demand on our limited resources. This feeling is often a precursor to burnout.
15. Hopelessness: The longer stress goes on, the more hopeless we can become, as we start to believe that we’ll always feel overwhelmed and that nothing is going to get better. Hopelessness is a major contributor to depression.
16. Agitation: With our sympathetic nervous system on high alert, we feel rattled and constantly on edge, like we’re vibrating at a high frequency.
17. Disconnection: When our nervous systems are overloaded, they’ll try to conserve resources by selectively shutting down non-essential functions, like a cell phone entering Low Power Mode. This can manifest as a feeling of being disconnected from our bodies, our surroundings, and other people.
18. Irritability: It’s hard to deal with other humans when we’re stretched thin mentally, physically, and emotionally, which leads to being prickly and impatient.
Effective Stress Management
If we're experiencing many signs of stress, we'll need multiple tools to manage it effectively. Mindful cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) integrates three approaches that can ease our daily strain:
Mindful: So much of our stress comes from looking ahead and seeing all we have to do—and fearing that we're not up for the task. Mindfulness invites us to come back to the present whenever we discover that our minds are elsewhere. The immediate present is much more manageable than the uncertain future that we imagine. With mindful awareness, we can also become more open to our reality, and let go of unproductive struggles against what's happening.
Cognitive: The C in CBT is about training our minds to recognize unhelpful and untrue thoughts. With practice, we can see through beliefs that add unnecessary stress to our lives, such as, "It will be terrible if I don't finish this project today."
Behavioral: Finally, mindful CBT addresses what we do. With greater awareness and clearer thinking we can choose actions that reduce our stress, such as saying "no" to things that would overextend us. We can also plan specific ways to manage our stress each day, like spending a few moments taking slow, calming breaths, and finding time for enjoyable exercise.