Have you felt the grip of stress creeping in and seizing your senses, mind, and body? We’ve all been there, and the more we know, the better we deal with stress.
Stress is an experience we go through daily. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association from May 2019 to May 2020, more than two-thirds of adults report moderate to high-stress levels. Many participants report an increase in stress over the past year. Whether caused by the loss of a beloved one, health, financial or occupational issues, or other stressors, stress manifestations tend to have a lot in common. It seems you’re gradually losing control over your perceptions and responses without a way out or a light at the end of the tunnel. What can you do to regain your balance and peace and become masters of your reason, senses, and mind again?
Just as dealing with every problem we face, the first step to cope with stress is the very recognition of its presence. How can you know that you are stressed? Sometimes it’s difficult to detect the signs of stress simply because we get so used to the influence of the daily stressors that our stressed selves become our ‘normal’ selves. So, with time, this threatens to result in completely changing our personality and attitudes. Through observing your bodily, mental, emotional, and behavioral status, you can be aware of experiencing stress.
It seems that the bodily ones are the easiest to identify out of all signs of stress, simply because they are more objective and measurable. Studies have revealed interesting facts, and you may be surprised that our brains can’t differentiate between physical and emotional stress. So, emotional pain or psychosocial stress and physical pain or threat will activate our brain’s identical areas and trigger similar bodily responses. For instance, the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, which was developed as a survival mechanism in case of a life-threatening situation, is triggered by emotional stress. What actually happens in your body then?
To put it briefly, in case of acute stress, your energy is redistributed, with the priority given to the essential organs, i.e., your brain and muscles. However, in the case of chronic or repeated acute stressors, this mechanism is disturbed and results in high blood pressure, suppressed immunity, and suspension of functions like digestion, growth, and reproduction. So, listen to your body.
Do you suffer recurrent headaches or dizziness? Do you feel chronic pain and muscle tension? You may often sense your rapid heart beating or suffer stomach problems, colds, or flu more frequently than usual. Have you noticed that you’ve lost your desire for intimacy? All these are bodily signs that you are experiencing stress, prompting you to take the next step.
Our brains are complex, resilient organs, and still, stress can result in serious cognitive symptoms. As studies have established, stress is associated with the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the HPA axis, and the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary system. Perhaps, you’ll better understand the effects of stress if you consider the brain as a computer. As you know, in this case, overload causes software glitches and hardware problems. What is more, their recurrence leads to more serious hardware and software issues.
So, how exactly does our brain react when exposed to stress? Stressful events lead to the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine and the hormone cortisol, which are responsible for the cognitive consequences of stress. And although their initially increased levels contribute to a stress protecting response, the extended exposure to stress results in an adverse impact on our mental state.
At the cognitive end, the specific cognitive operation (e.g., implicit or explicit memory, long-term or working memory, goal-directed or habit learning) and information processing phases (e.g., learning, consolidation, and retrieval) are essential as well to define stress effects.Sandi, Carmen. (2013). Stress and Cognition. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science. 4. 10.1002/wcs.1222.
So, among the consequences are anxiety, panic attacks, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other anxiety disorders. Other reported negative effects of stress concern our memory and are associated with memory problems, impaired control over thoughts and emotion, compromised cognitive flexibility, and concentration. Moreover, the memories associated with the stressors can trigger the same stress responses by other daily occurrences.
Now, the mental symptoms of stress are worrying. You may have problems such as forgetfulness, confusion, poor judgment, or anxiety. If this happens to you while you are at home, you may even underestimate them and think you’re simply tired. But when you are at work or doing some everyday duties, you wouldn’t be able to focus on your tasks, make the right decisions, and act accordingly. This will slow you down and reduce your efficiency, resulting in a further accumulation of stress and uncertainty. So, take some time to look at your thoughts and mind and answer the question: Do you have such symptoms?
Emotional symptoms of stress are directly linked to the physiological and cognitive responses and can be considered as their derivatives. Studies identify the noticeable correspondence between increased stress-induced cortisol production and emotional stress. Actually, such a correlation is quite predictable and expected because our emotions have their physiological roots. So, what are the feelings evoked by these physiological responses to stress?
The emotional signs reported are associated with anxiety, agitation, moodiness, irritability, or anger. Psychosocial stress affects our intrapersonal coping processes and self-esteem and is likely to evoke feelings of guilt, shame, and self-reproach. And here is the threatening pendulum oscillation between internalizing and externalizing guilt, which is self-destructive in its both extremes. The feeling of loneliness and isolation, emotional shutdown, and the inability to perceive anything but the negative aspect of things are other emotional signs of stress. In prolonged exposure to the stressors, the symptoms may develop into general unhappiness, depression, and anxiety disorder.
Thus, it becomes increasingly clear that you shouldn’t underestimate the emotional symptoms. What starts with fleeting moments of feeling angry, low, and hopeless may take over your senses and emotions. To keep stress at bay, you should be vigilant about the abrupt fluctuations in your mood and feelings and aware of your emotions’ precise nature and causes. So, step back and try to be objective. What exactly are you upset about, and why does it affect your emotions so intensely?
The behavioral symptoms of stress are observable in our daily routines and our interpersonal and social interactions. Studies point out the direct correlation between stress and changes in eating and sleeping habits, accidents, and increased use of psychotropic substances, such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, etc. Stress changes the quantity and the type of food intake, the amount and quality of sleep, and could intensify bad habits. There is evidence that the countries where the environment is more stressful are characterized by heavier smoking and higher alcohol consumption.
As you already realize, all stress symptoms are interwoven and interact, casting a shadow on all aspects of our beings. So, our stress-induced emotions impair our ability to correctly interpret and react to others’ words and actions and result in poor interpersonal relations. And since interpersonal relations are based on the ‘mirror’ effect, we are likely to get into a vicious circle. Distancing, withdrawal, and estrangement from family and friends are indicative of stress.
You catch yourself pacing up and down the room. You feel the urge to have a drink or two alone. Or you find it difficult to chase your heavy thoughts out of your head and fall asleep night after night. If so, it is time to search for any other signs of stress and take the next step because the consequences of prolonged stress can be detrimental to your health.
With our fast-paced reality and the multitude of social roles and interactions we enter into, stressors are our inevitable companion. We have to learn to live with them in the healthiest way possible. Day by day, you will learn to recognize the symptoms of stress, and this will help you work out your strategies to cope with it before it turns toxic and affects you emotionally, mentally, and bodily. The ability to identify the signs of stress will also allow you to understand the people around you better and give them a hand when they need it. And the best news is that you’re not alone in this struggle.