These days, it is becoming more difficult to find a great work-life balance. Work and home have slowly fused over the last 2 years, turning our bedrooms into boardrooms. Zoom meetings from home, work email on our phones, and corporate instant messaging apps are constantly pinging us. We may begin to feel “on the clock” a majority of the time, leaving many feeling the beginnings of work fatigue and chronic stress. Accordingly, some at-home employees may not recognize the subtle signs of stress and the impact it has on short and long-term health.
The Subtle Symptoms of Excess Stress
One of the most overlooked indicators of excess stress is forgetfulness. Perhaps you forgot your keys in the grocery store or missed that scheduled team meeting, but you attribute this to bad memory or simple fatigue. The lack of focus and concentration that excess stress may not be too disruptive at first, but the more hectic things become, the more likely you will be distracted from essential tasks. This is due to the effects of long-term stress on cortisol levels in the body – a key hormone for memory and attention.
2. Back Pain
Another subtle sign that is often not associated with emotions and stress is back pain. I often reference the work of famed NYU rehabilitation physician Dr. John Sarno, who has researched and written books on this phenomenon. He noticed that sciatica patients often healed without surgery or medications, but with psychological and stress reduction techniques. This came after several landmark studies in the 90s and early 2010s that proved abnormal back MRIs are not correlated with actual back pain. He postulated that when we are undergoing stress or strong emotions, as a protective mechanism, our body sends pain signals to other parts of our body, often our backs.
3. Rageful Moments
This sign may seem obvious, but it can be stealthy. Everyone gets angry and loses their cool from time to time, but the buildup of anger into rage can creep up on us slowly until we’re no longer able to keep it contained. Excessive stress, more often than not, leads to rageful moments and can impact your relationships at work, as well as those with your family and friends. Our inability to manage the pressures of stress causes us to look for a release point, which often erupts out of proportion to what we are actually responding to.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, naturally releasing cortisol and adrenaline. Humans evolved to release these chemicals to keep us safe from danger in prehistoric times. In current times, these hormones have been shown to cause increased tension in neck muscles leading to headaches. In addition, we often do not obtain proper sleep when stressed. High-stress levels and poor sleep have a negative synergistic effect, where stress causes disruption of melatonin release, which does not allow rest, which further exacerbates fatigue. It becomes a very challenging physical and emotional cycle.
Excessive binge eating, drinking, or risk-taking are all signs you may be overstressed. When we engage in binge activities, we are trying to activate the chemical reward system in our brains, releasing pleasurable feelings. With excessive binging, what ends up happening is the need to constantly chase that “high.” Binging can also include how you approach work; having the notifications turned on for your phone during non-work hours contributes to this problem. When you hear that ping, your brain activates, demanding you to see what it is. Similar to rage, this is an attempt to find a release point for those underlying emotions.
How to Address Stress And Reduce the Impact on Long-Term Health
We must understand these subtle signs of stress because they could lead to chronic adverse health effects. The American Heart Association emphasizes the link between stress and high blood pressure, making someone substantially more likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke, both of which can lead to death. Chronic stress can also lead to increased memory loss, and even increase the progression of several diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.
The first step in having a healthier relationship with stress is to be more body aware. We often overlook these subtle signs and ignore them, but honing in on what the body feels is important when trying to reduce stress. You may start to realize that you walk with your shoulders up, or you clench your teeth while typing on your computer. Some clients I find squint their eyes when stressed, not because it’s bright, but because it is a subtle way to block out the world. We must trust our bodies and be aware of the signs and practice relaxation techniques.
While a holistic lifestyle change seems like the best way to mitigate stress, it’s much easier said than done. Instead, use simple tools to recharge your batteries. Take a 10-minute break by walking around the neighborhood, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, or do a 60-second mid-day meditation. Even sitting outside for three minutes, closing your eyes, and focusing on all the sounds is a good way to refocus and reduce stress.
Life will never be completely stress-free, but you can learn techniques to mitigate the impact of stress on your life. Working with a health or mindset coach can provide you with the tools for success. If you let the stress you are feeling run freely, it will eventually overwhelm you. Listening to your body, and recognizing the signs that you may be under duress is the first step to getting back to health. Always remember to treat your body like a good friend or partner. Do not ignore it! Give it what it needs.