The surprising ways stress shows up in your life

Stress can show up in our lives in surprising ways. Both good and bad stress contribute to our state of well-being, and knowing how to identify and manage symptoms is an important part of maintaining a healthy balance.

Stress is your body’s response to a real or perceived threat, but your brain can’t necessarily distinguish between good stress and bad stress - whether you’re starting a new job or being chased by a bear, it’s all the same.

When we spend too long in a state of stress, we start to see physical, behavioural and emotional manifestations.

Physical

Stress shows up in our physical body as a result of the hormones produced when we encounter a stressful situation. Adrenaline and norepinephrine are the fight or flight hormones, and Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by your adrenal glands. If you spend too long in a state of heightened stress, this team of hormones that exist to keep you safe during times of danger can cause all sorts of problems.

  • Dry mouth or trouble swallowing - due to a slowed production of saliva.
  • Hair loss/slow growth - due to hormonal changes that cause your hair follicles to enter a ‘resting’ phase all at once.
  • Muscle aches and pains - caused by tension held in your muscles. Most commonly these show up as shoulder, neck and back pain.
  • Jaw pain, ear or vision problems, or headaches - caused by clenching or grinding your teeth.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness - caused by an elevated heart rate. prolonged high heart rates can lead to more severe cardiovascular problems.
  • Prolonged hormonal changes can even interfere with your sex life! - symptoms may include lowered libido, erectile dysfunction, and irregular or even missed periods.

woman with neck pain

Behavioural

When we are stressed, hormonal changes can affect how we behave. You may experience a poor appetite, or a lack of ability to focus resulting in procrastination and a sense of dread or overwhelm. You may also start to see new or more frequent nervous behaviours like nail biting, fidgeting, skin picking or pacing.

Stress is a reaction to a situation, but the behaviours that can result from stress often create a spiral effect. The CMHA suggests addressing the causes of stress to help break that cycle - you can read more here.

Emotional

Of course any hormonal change in the body is bound to come with emotional changes. If you’re experiencing an intense or prolonged period of stress, you may notice yourself becoming easily agitated or irritated by things that might not normally bother you (think about when you’re slightly late for work, and the car in front of you is going 2km/h under the speed limit).

You may feel a sense of overwhelm or dread but lack the motivation to tackle the problem, or you may notice that when you try to sleep or relax your mind races. This sense of hyper-awareness can also lead to forgetfulness and poor concentration.

These emotional intangibles may also manifest in feelings of low self esteem, and you may find yourself distancing yourself from relationships that usually lift you up or bring you joy.

man stressed looking at laptop

What can you do?

Stress looks different for every single person. What is unstressful for one may be unmanageable for another.

If you notice yourself struggling, getting out into nature for a walk, or even just sit and watch the sky. Meditation, journaling, and personal reflection can be a great practice to bring down heart rates, increase self-awareness, and encourage self compassion in troubling situations. Connecting with others or finding creative outlets are also proven to lower levels of adrenaline and cortisol, and improve personal senses of wellbeing.

Figuring out where stress comes from is important, but often people mistake the symptom for the cause. Resolving sources of stress in your life will result in long-term benefits.


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