Stress is something that affects us all, at least some of the time. It begins when we are infants and continues throughout life. In fact, our brains and bodies are designed to experience stress. However, this very clever adaptive function (which we will explore more in a subsequent post) can sometimes become a little too sensitive... and that can be a problem. Here are five signs you might be stressed, and some helpful tips to feel better.
1. You are having trouble sleeping. This fact is commonly known, and many (?most) people will have had a sleepless night at some stage. But why does this occur? One key reason is due to the release of the stress hormone, Cortisol. Cortisol helps your body to be alert for threats - not what you want when you are chasing zzz's. To reduce stress before bed, try having a warm bath or shower, practising some mindful deep breathing, and dimming the lights. Having a regular wind-down routine and staying away from screens can help too.
2. You are more irritable than you would like. Face it, we all get cranky sometimes. And that's OK, irritability is a normal and valid human emotion after all. However, when we are stressed we can find ourselves being a little too cranky, and feeling guilty afterwards. Some time-out can be helpful here. Notice the ideas running through your mind and try and change them into something a little more helpful or balanced. Adding "My thought is" to the start of an irritable idea (e.g. "My thought is he just wants to annoy me") can give you a bit of emotional distance and new perspective. If you can't take a break, take some deep breaths and where possible recruit some supports to help you schedule a break soon.
3. You lose your appetite... or you just can't eat enough. Appetite changes are another common effect of too much stress. Make sure you are hydrated - we often don't drink enough water anyway and when you are stressed, fluid intake is the last thing on your mind. And remember, treats are generally fine in moderation. Try filling up on healthier food first; it'll do wonders for your energy levels. Speaking of which...
4. Your energy levels drop. After an initial stressed "buzz" (thanks, Cortisol), our energy levels can drop. Cue sluggishness, low motivation, and not getting off the couch. Energy levels are a funny thing - often the more we do, the better our energy is. The steam train can be hard to get going, but even taking a gentle walk and practising mindfulness (being present in the here and now) can do wonders for how much spark we have. The trick here is keeping it regular and pushing yourself to do things, even when you don't really feel like it.
5. Concentration becomes an issue. Stress has a huge impact on our ability to stay focused and on task, and we can find ourselves not achieving anything (which can be an additional source of stress in itself!). It's important to be kind to yourself, and be realistic with what you can expect from your poor old frontal lobes. If you can't take a break right now (hello, exams) then try and break down tasks into more achievable chunks and make sure you vigorously cross them off your to-do list, congratulating yourself as you go.
Remember, if you are feeling too overwhelmed, have a chat to your GP or psychologist for further strategies that can help.