How do I Know if I’m Stressed?

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

Our world continues to change exponentially, and is unrecognisable from the lifestyle that our nervous system evolved to support and survive. Responding to work, and having social media or fear inducing news cycles available to us at all hours, can easily have our fight/flight system powered up all day (and night) long, locked in the ‘on’ position.

Our nervous system was only ever designed to offer short-term boosts to get us out of danger; to function fully we need instead to be marinating in the calming hormonal soup of the parasympathetic nervous system – the ‘rest and digest’ mode. Only in this mode can our body and mind run optimally and reboot fully; allowing our best long-term planning, our full personality and compassion to flourish, and for deep sleep, digestion and detox to occur.

What are some signs that I'm stressed? 

Stress impacts everyone differently and can build up insidiously. Rather like the proverbial frog in the slowly heating water who doesn’t realise the changes occurring until he is being scalded; stress can creep up unnoticed, impacting our health and how we show up in the world. For this reason it is really important to know your own early-warning signals and how to take preventative steps to prevent burnout. Some signs include:

·      a racing heart/palpitations

·      difficulties switching off or resting

·      sleep disturbances or insomnia  

·      fatigue

·      finding you have more extreme or unexpected emotional responses

·      loosing perspective or ability to plan coherently

·      distractibility

·      feelings of being overwhelmed

·      Problems emerging in how you relate to others

·      in particular in healthcare, experiencing compassion fatigue

Stress also shows up with physiological symptoms, and not just those associated with the fight/flight system such as a racing heart, chest pains or gastric issues.  Mind and body are not separate at all. Our thoughts affect our physiology, and our physiological state affects our thoughts. Our immune system is impacted by prologued stress, as are many other aspects of our body’s functioning. To complicate the picture further, being or fearing being ill can in itself be very stressful. Thus stress can also impact:

-       Headaches and migraines

-       Palpitations and heart rhythm disturbances

-       Blood pressure

-       Skin problems

-       ENT problems

-       Pain

-       Digestive issues including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

-       Weight management difficulties

-       Susceptibility to and difficulty fighting off viruses and infections

-       Autoimmunity

Why valuing ourselves by how others perceive us and what we do, (rather than who we are and how we value ourselves) adds to stress

When we allow others’ judgement of our capacity or performance to determine our worth, this can place an unbearable pressure on us. Belonging and acceptance is so hardwired into us as herd mammals, that unchecked it can lead to levels of stress akin to a survival threat. Because we cannot control how others think, it can also leave us feeling out of control and helpless. 

Perhaps even more in healthcare than elsewhere, we have normalised running on adrenaline, putting others first and exhausting hours. Our identity in healthcare, and our performance there, can sometimes begin to overshadow other important aspects of who we are and how we value ourselves. When we neglect the activities and ways of showing up which help us feel an intrinsic or internal sense of worth, we lose key ways that we regulate, and keep our lives and our work sustainable.

Some antidotes to this include regularly finding ways to pull in calm, joy or gratitude, and also keeping a broad sense of how we value ourselves and define who we are. This can help us cope better when work or other aspects of our lives are for whatever reason less than ideal. Some useful regular practices to keep on top of stress includes:

·      Have a regular extended practice of relaxation, mindfulness or yoga, or a hobby which generates a flow state (when you lose track of time and space)

·      Before starting any new task check in and see if you are centred and calm and if necessary take a few breaths or a short break

·      Take regular breaks in the day to ensure working sustainably and effectively

·      Take regular holidays and time off if you feel stress building

·      Exercise and movement are critical for helping release tension

·      Prioritise sleep

·      Limit social media and consider a ‘digital sunset’, turning off all devices at least an hour before bed (watching or reading news late at night is a common contributor to anxiety)

·      Imbue every day with some activities (hobbies, family time, community projects, creative pursuits) that remind you that you are more than what you ‘produce’ or earn

·      Laugh as often as possible, be social and spend time in nature

·      Taking time each day to list things you are grateful for is an evidence-based stress buster and mood booster

It is a good idea to work out your early warning signs or reg-flags of stress and write them down. Potentially tell someone who sees you regularly what to look out for and ask them to alert you if they start to show up. The eye often doesn’t see itself - especially when racing for the next deadline on the horizon. 

If the methods above for self-regulating prove insufficient, seek help sooner rather than later. Do not wait for it to get worse. No clinician ever feels their time is wasted when they are able to offer early intervention and prevent a larger problem from occurring.  Access support via your GP, self-refer for talking therapies via the NHS website, contact mental health support charities, or otherwise access evidence-based talking therapies to get back on track.

We need to retake our birth right to be regularly experiencing calm and enjoying this one wild and precious life from a place of feeling centred and at ease.

For more information on Dr Morwenna Opie-Moran and to view her profile on our website click here.

Dr Morwenna Opie-Moran

Clinical Psychologist & BABCP Registered CBT Therapist 
MA (Cantab), PhD, DipClinPsych, CPsychol, AFBPsS

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