Stress is a natural and vital part of life. Our body needs stress to help us survive fight or flight situations, but what happens when stress is too common in our lives? Excess stress can worsen pre-existing mental and chronic illnesses or even be the cause of them if prolonged stress isn’t properly managed. Studies have found stress to increase the risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, and premature aging among other illnesses.
How to Tell if You’re Stressed Out
Modern lifestyles seem to be contributing to the idea that being stressed out is just a way of life. Many of us have experienced symptoms of stress for so long that it’s hard to recognize the signs of being stressed out until we hit a breaking point. There are many physical and emotional signs that can signal if stress is taking a toll on the body.
- Emotional Signs Include: frequent mood swings and agitation, feeling like you’ve lost control, feeling overwhelmed, low self-esteem, inability to relax, distancing yourself from others
- Physical Signs Include: gastrointestinal issues, headaches, body aches, lack of sex drive, lowered immune system, low energy, rapid heartbeat, insomnia
Other symptoms of stress that we might easily overlook are the cognitive and behavioral signs like forgetfulness or being disorganized, difficulty staying focused, overthinking, changes in appetite, procrastinating, and increased use of drugs and alcohol.
What’s Causing Your Stress?
Too Much Caffeine
Say is isn’t so! Before you freak out let’s talk about the actual health benefits of caffeinated beverages like coffee and green tea. Both coffee and green tea are high in antioxidants and have the ability to boost your mood in healthy doses. Johns Hopkins even links healthy doses of coffee to health benefits like liver health, decreasing the chances of heart disease, Parkinson’s, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Johns Hopkins Medicine also links coffee drinkers to having stronger DNA and living longer- read the full study here.
But, how much is too much caffeine? 68 million America’s drink more than three cups of coffee per day. That number doesn’t include the astronomical amount of caffeinated sodas and energy drinks we’re drinking. Soda’s and energy drinks are some of the worst caffeine choices available. The sugar and chemicals in these beverages can throw your system into stressful states so easily. While some studies show drinking three to five cups a coffee a day is healthy, It’s wise to keep that number around two if you’re prone to stress or struggle with anxiety disorders.
Too much caffeine can elevate cortisol in the body. Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone and while it’s needed for emergency situations to aid in survival, too much for extended periods is detrimental to the body. Increased cortisol levels for prolonged periods of time can lead to chronic stress, a weakened immune system, and weight gain predominantly in the belly area.
Not Saying ‘NO!’
Do you find yourself saying yes to everything even when it’s something you don’t want to do or you’ve already got too much on your plate? If so, it’s probably time to set some boundaries in life. As humans we want to be accepted and praised for the person we are and the work we do in life- it’s just our nature. Learning to set boundaries and say no can be extremely difficult, especially if you carry perfectionist or people pleasing traits (slowly raises hand).
Taking on too much when you know you already have so much going on can easily throw you into a state of overwhelm. After a while you might even find yourself in a burnout cycle resulting in throwing in the towel all together. Here are a few things to remember when trying to set boundaries:
- Saying NO is healthy not selfish
- Your mental health matters more than pleasing others
- Be kind when saying NO- it doesn’t have to be an act of aggression
- You don’t owe anyone an explanation, but if it makes it easier for you to say NO explain why you need to set a boundary right now
- If someone gets angry over you setting a rational boundary they might be using you
The environments you submerge yourself into matter. A toxic work, home, or social environment can pack on a ton of stress. I’m no psychoanalyst , but I’d be willing to bet most of the stress we encounter comes from the environments in which we’re surrounded. Take an inventory of your job, personal relationships, and home life. How are these environments making you feel? Do they lift you up or cause you to feel stressed? Keep in mind stress is going to occur in every environment at times, but if it’s an ongoing occurrence at an unhealthy level it might be time to make a change.
Before making a huge life altering decision like leaving a job or ending a relationship it’s important to speak with a therapist. In many cases these environments can become healthier with mindfulness and deep communication.
Are you giving yourself enough time to be in the present moment? We’ve got a lot going on in life. It’s really easy to use technology or television to disassociate from the problems we may be facing. When you’re already stressed or not in the best headspace tech can be a pretty toxic refuge. Overstimulation can cause feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and stress. If you’re looking for an outlet during times of stress try getting outside for a walk or pick up a nurturing hobby like gardening, cooking or painting.
Lack of Sleep
Something magical happens to your body during sleep. It’s a detoxification time for the body. Your cells are restored and repaired during sleep resulting better overall health. Lack of sleep puts an extreme amount of stress on the body and can lead to chronic stress if not properly managed. When the body lacks sleep cortisol levels are increased in the body, cognitive function suffers, and the immune system is weakened.
Read more about sleep and exhaustion in my previous post 6 Reasons Why You Might Be Feeling Tired All The Time
High inflammatory foods like those that are heavily processed, high in sugar, alcohol, and chemicals can place stress on the body not only physically but mentally. Studies like this one from Harvard show the brain directly connects to the gut and plays a huge role in mental health. A healthy gut microbiome is created with a healthy balance of bacteria from probiotics and prebiotics. While these can be taken in supplemental form, prebiotics and probiotics are found naturally in fruits/ vegetables and fermented foods like kombucha, kimchi, and kefir. Foods that are highly processed and filled with chemicals can damage the gut microbiome causing you to be more prone to stress and anxiety.
Read more on foods and mental illness in my previous post Can Food Help Treat Mental Illness? Eating Your Way to Mental Health
Not Enough Movement
You don’t have to be in the gym everyday, intentional daily movement can help expel excess stress and boost happy hormones like endorphins, dopamine, and endocannabinoids. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to hit the gym try to find something you love. It can be dancing, hiking, walking or anything that allows your body to move mindfully. Movement stimulates the body and mind to release whatever stress we’ve encountered through the day. It moves around that stagnant energy in the body that we might be holding onto emotionally.
Try these tips on Getting Fit At Home: The Best Methods for Staying Healthy Without a Gym Membership
Stress is a normal part of life that’s not going to completely go away no matter how much we may try. Learning to mindfully take on stress so that it doesn’t control or damage your body physically and emotionally can enhance your overall wellness. If you’re struggling to manage stress it may be helpful to speak with a therapist. Together you can create a plan of action to take on stress in a mindful manner.