We’ve all had stressful days where we rush around, everything seems to go wrong, or we’ve had to have a tense but necessary conversation with someone. While the stress is often uncomfortable, most of the time we know that the next day or week will bring an end to that stress.
Then there’s Stress with a capital S—the kind of stress that seems to hit you like a tsunami and pulls you into a vortex of sleepless nights, running on a hamster wheel of endless worries, and feeling like you are in a constant state of fear. It can easily become all-consuming whether it’s relationship stress, family stress, work stress, or where-is-my-life-going type stress.
This type of stress can also be a combination of stress from various aspects of your life, known as compounded stress. The tricky thing about this kind of stress is that it’s easy to miss the warning signs it’s coming until it’s already overwhelming you. But if you can learn to identify the warning signs, you can take steps to address it before it takes over your life.
As a psychotherapist, I am happy to identify some warning signs that may indicate you are dealing with more than everyday levels of stress.
The quality of sleep you get at night is affected by the stress you experience during the day. If you find yourself having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep regularly, the stress you experience during the day might be to blame. According to The National Sleep Foundation, the hormones your body produces while stressed can impact your ability to fall into a deep and restful sleep.
Changes in eating habits
Stress can impact your eating habits in many ways. Many people lose their appetite when stressed, which is part of your body’s natural response to stress. Some people tend to skip meals because of their lack of appetite while others tend to eat more (even when they aren’t really hungry). According to Harvard Health, we tend to crave foods high in fat and sugar that tend to diffuse emotions and physical related stress responses. If you find yourself craving foods high in fat and sugar despite your lack of appetite when under stress, it could be due to the effect that stress is having on your appetite.
When your stress has moved from the everyday stress that you feel confident handling and into “this feels completely overwhelming” stress, it can become all you think about. You’re constantly turning the issue around in your mind. I sometimes describe it to my psychotherapy clients as a kind of background music that’s always there. Sometimes the volume might be fairly low and other times it feels like it’s turned on full blast, but it can feel ever present.
You’re irritable or “on edge”
Chronic stress can make you feel more irritable than usual. Things that never seemed to annoy you before suddenly seem like huge impositions, and you might find yourself taking out your irritation on others, even if they aren’t directly involved in that stress. This could look like road rage, snapping at people, constantly feeling impatient, or simply feeling perpetually “on edge” like you can’t relax.
You isolate yourself
When the stress becomes compounded and overwhelming, you might start feeling like you want to hide from the world. This could look like daydreaming about leaving your life behind and escaping to a tropical island. It could also look like frequently canceling plans with family and friends.
You feel hopeless or guilty
The feeling of being constantly overwhelmed also means that you feel like you can’t get ahead of your stress. This can trigger feelings of hopelessness (“I’ll never figure this out” or, “I’ll always be stressed”) or guilt (“I’m letting down family/friends/coworkers because I can’t handle all of this” or “It’s my fault I’m feeling this way”). If you find that your thoughts are taking on themes of hopelessness or guilt, your stress is starting to negatively affect your perception of yourself and your abilities.
You feel drained
Over time, chronic stress starts to wear you down and drain you of your emotional and physical energy. Your body’s response to stress is to activate your autonomic nervous system which puts you on high alert. Being on high alert for a sustained period of time becomes exhausting, which is why you might feel like your emotional and physical energy have been completely depleted.
You no longer feel motivated
Along with feelings of hopelessness or guilt, stress can lead you to feel stuck in life. In other words, your stress feels so overwhelming that it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, leaving you feeling like you can’t move forward or past the stress. When that happens, it’s hard to feel motivated about the things in your life that used to bring you joy.
It’s running your life
Another sign you’re dealing with more than everyday stress is if your stress seems to be running your life instead of you having control over it. It can feel like your life has become solely focused on that one particular stressor and everything else fades to the background. Along the way, that stressor begins to feel all-consuming.
If you are experiencing any of these signs of chronic stress, don’t despair. The good news is that there are ways to fight back against your stress and begin to establish healthy habits to boost your emotional and physical health. Psychotherapy can be a powerful tool when it comes to addressing stress. Your therapist can help you explore how you respond to stress and identify areas of stress in your life that you can address.
It all starts with identifying the problem. The important first step is to act when you see the warning signs before the stress becomes a bigger challenge to combat.