The Signs Of Unhealthy Stress

By Azzy Aslam

Performance & Change Coach. Helping you create new habits and turning them into your superpower!

15 Aug, 2019

Is stress normal?

Stress, or rather the effects we feel when stress kicks in are normal. Stress is part of life. It is part of what keeps us safe and in tough situations, keeps us going.

It is and can be a good mechanism to get us through the day, challenging moments and even get started in other situations.

Ideally, after stress has done it’s thing,  there usually comes calm as we get back to our normal state. We can even feel happy, joyed, and even ecstatic when we have completed some task we always wanted to finish.

This is how stress is meant to work. It prepares us to do something more than we would normally do, and when completed, we go back to our calm and normal state.

This is perfectly demonstrated when we watch a wildlife programme. The one where there’s a herd of gazelle. Heads down, grazing away.

In the background comes a lion or two. Crouching, stalking. Moving closer to the herd. Eyeing up where to attack. Looking for some isolated gazelle that would be easy prey.

Suddenly, one of gazelle sees something. It’s head shoots up.

Stress is starting to kick in. Cortisol flood into the blood stream. Cortisol is the body’s alarm system.  The body’s main stress hormone. The ears go up. The gazellle starts to scan the savannah for anything unusual. All the senses are heightened.

Adrenaline is kicked into the body too. The muscles are ready to flex. Ready to take action. Fight or flight.  In the gazelle’s case, flight to outrun the hunter.

The curious thing about about being stressed is it’s highly “infection”. When one gazelle pops it head up and starts to look around nervously, another gazelle seem to notice and does the same. Then another, and another, and very quickly the whole herd will be up and scanning for threats and preparing to run.

If there were no predators around, the stress scales back. The adrenalin and cortisol shut off and the body goes back to it’s normal state.
On the other hand, if the threat is real and the lion pounces, the gazelle will run. The adrenaline and cortisol will provide a boost to get away from the predator. Once the chase is over adrenaline and cortisol shut off and soon the gazelle is back to grazing in a calm state becuase the threat has passed.

This is how stress is meant to work. Even with us. If we heard a noise late at night which woke us up, we would go through the same mechanism as the gazelle until we either confronted and dealt with the disturbance, or were statisfied that it was nothing.


Stress in today’s lifestyle

Our modern lifestyle doesn’t appear to work this way. We are constantly thinking about things we we want to do, have to do, must do.

Worry if things will work, won’t work, what happens next and conjure up worst case scenarios.

Thinking about what people will say, won’t say. What will you do if this happens or that happens.

The workplace and work environment creates it’s own stresses, through time pressures, people pressure, expectations, assumptions and sometimes the unexpected – such as redundancy.

All of these stressors allow a constant drip feed of adrenalin and cortisol into our bloodstream. This keeps us in a heightened state. We start to consider everything as a threat and body contrinues it drip feed of Adrenaline and Cortisol. Drip, drip, drip….the stress levels keep rising.


When Stress Kicks-In

Unnoticed & unchecked its effect creep up on us and get stronger. Taking over and affecting our body, mind, thoughts, emotions and our whole life – at least at that moment.

The stress sequence we go through when stress goes unchecked is:

  • “Adrenaline kick” to get us through the tough spot – like the gazelle
  • Sustained stress to get us through the day
  • Acute Stress – this is where is get serious when sustained.
  • Chronic Stress
  • Mental health impact

This sequence was explained to me when early in my career I found myself with Acute Stress.

I was dealing with 3 of the top 5 recognised stressors in our lifestyle. They are:

  • Dealing with a death of a close family member
  • Divorce/Serious relationship issues
  • Moving house
  • Job Loss or challenges at work
  • Major Illness

I had changed jobs and it was proving to be a challenge. I was trying to impress my boss and learn the new role. I moved 350 miles for the job. Plus I had some family and personal issues to deal with too.

Stress has a habit of creeping up on us. We don’t always notice it until something gives. And this can be different for each of us. For me it was one Monday morning and I just didn’t want to face the world!

There is some good news. Stress does show it’s hand in a number of ways. Again, each of us will experience stress differently and show differing symptoms.

I learned how to recognise my signs when stress starts to become unhealthy. My key signs are:

  • Head is full of thoughts even when I write them down – this appears to be common for many people
  • Unable to fall asleep easily because of thoughts spinning in my head.
  • Waking up at odd hours. I found myself waking up a couple of hours after managing to fall asleep
  • As a consequence of the above two, I was barely geting 3-4 hours of sleep each night
  • Reduced appetite – unable to eat a full meal and skipping others
  • Avoiding family and friends. I wanted to left alone.
  • High pulse rate
  • Unable to stay sitting for too long
  • Constant feeling of agitation/nervousness

All the above are my signs of Acute Stress. And they don’t all appear at the ame time. And having just one doesn’t mean I am overstressed, as long as I can get back to a calm state.  It’s when there is a combination of them appear which gets me to actively de-stress.

For you, the signs may be different. It is really important to learn your signs of stress.

Thankfully, I am able to manage my stress levels today. I learned how to calm my mind. Focus on the important things.

Building a good support structure is important; it includes family, friends, relaxation, exercise, and a good diet.

Most of all, taking action at the first signs of sustained stress!

Reducing stress levels will help you be far more effective and productive in reaching your goals and living life your way!

Never be afraid to seek professional help. There are many health professionals (counsellors/therapists) who can help with getting back to an even keel when you are experiencing high levels of stress.

Learn your signs of stress and get back in control!


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