I’ve always been a stress magnet. I tend toward wanting to be responsible for a lot at once. I also don’t like to say no, so I take on many things at the same time and it never ends well (still trying to learn that lesson).
These things have been especially true in my work life.
At most of the jobs I’ve ever had in my life, I’ve said “yes” to too much, or picked up responsibilities dropped by other people, or put immense pressure on myself to perform at my peak at all times.
I’ve also had a difficult time leaving work at work – I used to come home and ruminate on all the things I’d done wrong and what I would need to do the next day or the next shift.
It has exhausted me, and stressed me out to the point of heart palpitations and a wild eyebrow twitch.
Since my ADHD diagnosis, I’ve been more aware of stress and how it affects me. I have focused my attention on calculating my stress level before it reaches a breaking point. And I have been trying to make healthier decisions that decrease the amount of stress I experience overall.
It’s because stress is serious business. Too much of it can lead to burnout, it can have serious physical and emotional side effects, and it can make you get sick more easily.
What Really Is Stress?
In its simplest form, stress is the body’s response to perceived danger. It’s a natural set of defenses that occur when we feel threatened by our environment.
Of course, you’ve probably experienced stress about work and you may not feel that your workplace is dangerous or threatening (perhaps you do, which would of course lead to issues).
But consider that any external factor that may lead to a significant change or require us to adapt to new circumstances is going to feel like danger. It’s because your brain knows you’ll need to adjust to a different situation, when what your brain really wants is to maintain steadiness and sameness.
There are many life changes that can be simultaneously exhilarating and stressful, like having a baby, being promoted at work, or starting a new relationship.
Most people would agree these are all good things (though dependent on circumstance), thus should be seen as exciting. Yet each one comes with new responsibilities and new routines, which your brain may subconsciously not want. Thus, despite the excitement, stress begins to settle in as you wonder about the gray area of change for each event.
It doesn’t have to be overtly about danger, but it is typically about fear. Fear of unknown, fear of repercussions, fear of failure.
There are many factors that go into what causes stress, but most medical organizations recognize two types of stress: acute and chronic.
Acute stress is short-term stress typically caused by a recent or upcoming event.
Imagine you are giving a presentation at a conference. Maybe you are worried about preparing the presentation or getting up in front of a crowd. Perhaps you think a lot about your outfit, getting good sleep the night before, or ensuring you smile enough while talking.
Once the presentation is done, the pressure will typically resolve itself. Thus, the stress was considered a short-term event (even if it lasted several weeks or months).
Acute stress can turn into chronic stress if you experience episodes of it frequently back-to-back. This can be especially true if the episodes are from the same stressors.
Speaking at one conference and being nervous may cause acute stress. Speaking every month at different conferences over the course of three years and being nervous each time may cause chronic stress.
Chronic stress occurs over a long period of time due to stressors that may feel unavoidable.
It can be caused by things like a dysfunctional family environment, a toxic workplace, an unhappy romantic relationship, or long-term physical illness. It can occur when you feel the situation is unavoidable and you have no way to get out of it.
Chronic stress differs from acute stress in that it is prolonged and constant.
You may feel stressed all the time because your autonomic nervous system has no time to activate a relaxation response. Chronic stress keeps your body in a state of physiological arousal that can have harmful side effects.
What Are the Effects of Stress?
Chronic stress tends to cause more physical and emotional issues than acute stress. Both types can have surprising impacts on your day-to-day functioning.
If you’re experiencing any combination of the below symptoms and unsure if they are caused by something else, look to the tension in your life! Have you been worried about something lately?
- Muscle tightness
- General aches and pains in joints and muscles
- Chest pain or tightness
- Heart palpitations
- Stomach or digestive issues
- Headaches or migraines
- A weakened immune system
- Muscle tics or twitches
- High blood pressure
- Anxiety, whether generalized or in specific situations
- Depression or unexplained sadness
- Difficulty falling and staying asleep
- Angry outbursts
- Restlessness and difficulty staying on task
- Panic attacks
- Substance abuse
- Under- or overeating
- Loss of libido
- Erectile dysfunction
Burnout is a state of severe mental, physical and emotional exhaustion, coupled with feelings of emptiness and failure. It’s often caused by repeated exposure to stressful and unchangeable situations at work or at home. It can also be the result of personality traits and lifestyle.
Burnout can bring on a significant amount of psychological distress, and may lead to serious issues like depression and even heart disease. It can also weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to viruses like the flu, and pneumonia.
It’s not an issue to be taken lightly, and is typically preventable and treatable. Learn the signs and have a support system in place for when burnout happens!
Check out this resource from HelpGuide on causes, signs and treatment of burnout.
Is Stress Preventable?
Not really. We all have things that will make us feel stressed in our lives, between work, home responsibilities, relationships, financial situation, and current events. Some of it can even be healthy in small doses. It can help us meet last minute deadlines or take on new challenges.
But there are things you can try to do regularly that will keep stress levels lower and prevent burnout from happening.
Stress Prevention Ideas
Consider doing relaxation activities, like yoga, tai chi, meditation or breathing exercises. This can be done daily for just a few minutes, any time of the day, to have an effect on stress levels. Don’t just do them when you feel stressed. It’s better to do them regularly so they will become a barrier against building pressure when the responsibilities start to pile up.
Exercise has been shown to reduce the levels of two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, which can lead to lower stress as well as reduced anxiety. Exercising doesn’t have to be intense to be worthwhile. A 30 minute walk a few times a week can be just as effective as any other type of exercise in the battle against stress.
If you tend to be a negative thinker, especially about situations beyond your control, work on infusing positivity into your daily routine. Try keeping a gratitude journal, working on your negative self-talk, or simply try engaging in more activities that make you laugh.
Schedule and perform routine check-ins, even when you’re feeling okay with your workload. Take stock of how stressed you feel currently, and whether you think that will change soon by making a list of your current and upcoming responsibilities. Rank which ones are more likely to strain yourself. If your list looks overloaded, make decisions then and there to pass some things off to another person or to delay them to the future.
Learn to use your “no”. You are obligated to yourself before anyone else, and it’s okay to tell people “no” when you’re already busy – especially if you’re teetering on the edge!
What are you currently doing to manage your stress levels?
References, in no particular order or citation style:
- “Stress”, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress
- “Why stress happens and how to manage it”, Adam Felman, medically reviewed by Stacy Sampson, D.O., https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/145855
- “5 Things You Should Know About Stress”, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/
- “A Guide to Burnout”, Juli Fraga, Psy.D., medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP, https://www.healthline.com/health/tips-for-identifying-and-preventing-burnout
- “Burnout Prevention and Treatment”, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.htm#