Stress. Unfortunately, we’ve all got it, and perhaps even more unfortunately, many of us have learned to live with it all too comfortably. We’ve developed our own coping mechanisms — exercise, long talks with friends, fresh air, counseling — that keep us at a baseline chill level, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t experience spikes now and then… or that we have it all figured out.
It’s Stress Awareness Month, which means there’s never been a better time to tune in to your mental health and consider the fact that you could be managing your stress levels better or differently. Not sure where to start? We spoke with 10 mental health and wellness experts and got their advice on the red flags that can signal that it’s time to reconsider how you cope with that stress. Keep scrolling for their advice. If you relate, don’t be afraid to reach out to a third party for additional guidance.
1. You’re saying “yes” or “no” all the time. Often, when we’re overwhelmed by stress, we lose whatever sense of personal boundaries we normally have under better circumstances. Power coach Nikki Bruno explains that an automatic “yes” to invitations, an automatic “no” to offers of help, or any other similar default response can be an indication of a lack of control. When you feel yourself losing control over your time or your life, it may be time to reconsider how you’re taking care of your mental health.
2. You’re battling new issues with your skin. Stress often rears its ugly head hormonally, so if you’re suddenly experiencing terrible breakouts, it’s likely a stress response. “Your skin is shouting at you that you need to take notice of your stress levels,” dermatologist and wellness expert Dr. Keira Barr tells us. “What we think, feel, and see can play a significant role in what shows up on our skin and how we show up in it.”
3. You’re stressed in circumstances that would typically make you happy. Usually, you’d be totally excited to celebrate your BFF’s engagement or to go on your family’s annual beach vacation, but for some reason, these events are making you nothing but anxious and miserable. Stress is likely to blame! Licensed psychotherapist Gennifer Morley tells us that these feelings are a sign that your high stress has gone on for too long and has created an even more complex anxiety reaction, which can more easily color life experiences than stress. Stop allowing stress to ruin those experiences, and think about other ways to deal with it.
4. You have less tolerance for other people than usual. Even when we’re cool as cucumbers, we all can only tolerate so much frustration, annoyance, or bad behavior from the people around us. This threshold will be that much lower when your stress levels are high. A low tolerance, per licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. Dani Moye, will influence the way that you respond to others and make you feel more irritable. Sound familiar? Check your stress.
5. You’re restless. “If you can’t sit still for more than a few moments, you may have overstimulated your sympathetic nervous system and your adrenals could be working overtime,” licensed marriage and family therapist Connie L. Habash says. “This could potentially set you up for burnout, exhaustion, fatigue, and hinder the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness.” TL;DR: An increased sense of restlessness is worth paying attention to, because if you can deal with your stress before it gets worse, you’ll avoid larger health issues down the road.
6. You’re feeling extra controlling. Whether you realize it or not, a fresh wave of intense perfectionism may be your brain’s involuntary method of coping with high stress or anxiety. Licensed psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson advises that you tune into this need for control. Do you need all the details on what everyone in your group is wearing to a birthday party? Have you queried everyone in the office to see what they know about the meeting that your boss has added to the calendar out of nowhere? These tendencies aren’t necessarily a symptom of wanting to have it all together. They may be a signal of your intense stress.
7. You’re holding your breath. “Are you breathing right now?” intuitive coach Candice Thomas asks. ” If you find that you are holding your breath throughout the day, it’s usually because stress has caused your muscles to tense and stopped your natural breathing cycle. Checking on your breath is a great way for people to gauge how often they are going into stress mode every day.” If you find yourself doing that often, it sounds like the stress has gotten out of control.
8. You’re grinding or clenching your teeth. According to Approach Therapy clinical psychologist Melanie Chinchilla, bruxism — the fancy term for grinding or clenching your teeth — is a sign of heightened stress or anxiety. If this is something that you don’t typically do but you find yourself doing more recently, it may be a signal that your stress has reached new heights. Waking up with headaches? This could mean that you’re grinding your teeth while you sleep, which is another red flag.
9. You’re indulging in emotional eating. There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to some ice cream after a bad day or baking cookies to combat post-breakup bad vibes, but if you find yourself regularly overeating to mask your feelings, you need to take a look at your coping mechanisms. Registered dietitian and nutritionist Samantha Harmon confirms that many of us are guilty of using emotional eating for comfort when there are larger issues to be addressed.
10. You can’t focus. “Although stress and anxiety often make us believe we have many tasks that require our attention, the worry itself impacts our executive functioning skills, making it more difficult for us to stay focused and complete the tasks we are worrying about,” psychotherapist Kristina Ferrari says. “When this occurs, it intensifies our anxiety since we aren’t able to check anything off the list. If worries keep piling up, it’s a good indicator you need to look at ways to mitigate the stressors in your life.” Vicious cycle, anyone? Don’t be so quick to write off your inability to focus as basic boredom or procrastination.
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