Did you watch The Truth About… Stress with Fiona Phillips on BBC One? It first aired on the 4th May 2017, so at the time of writing this, it’ll only be available for a few more days. It wasn’t without its controversial reviews, but then again, what is? If anything, it gave me the push to write about stress, which is something that had been on my mind (and my to-do list) for a while. Would you recognise the signs and symptoms of stress if they were staring at you in the face?
What is stress anyway?
We probably all know what stress actually is. If you think it’s our body’s natural response to a threat or difficult situation, it can be hard to understand why stress has such a bad reputation. Our brain’s instinct to protect us kicks in when faced with danger. The heart starts beating faster, breathing becomes quicker and more shallow, and we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
And this was obviously great when we had to run away from tigers (or a situation of real danger), but our stress triggers have massively changed. Being stuck in traffic, rushing to work, the school run, the children fighting, too much going on at the same time, being out of battery on your phone and even out of Wi-Fi signal can be stressful events in our everyday lives! And all these little things happen so frequently. The primitive part of our brain who controls our stress responses can’t tell the difference between a real tiger and that long email you got from your boss late at night, so we find ourselves experiencing stress way too often than what we’re expected to.
As a result, our bodies find it harder to effectively calm down, and we enter the dangerous realm of chronic stress. Which can obviously be detrimental for our health.
So although we probably recognise and label certain situations in our everyday life as stressful, would you we know if were chronically stressed? Would we know what the signs and symptoms of stress are?
Because I know I didn’t.
Last year, I experienced a lot of stress. But if you asked me (and I was asked) I’d tell you I wasn’t stressed. I’d use other words to describe how I felt. And those were symptoms of stress. I even picked up on some of the physical signs. But I didn’t put two and two together until much, much later.
And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. So here are a few of the sign and symptoms that I experienced – it’s by no means an exhaustive list, but I’d be interested to know whether you’d immediately think of stress if you or someone you know experienced this.
Signs and symptoms of stress
This is what I used to say. That I felt overwhelmed, frazzled, unsettled and ‘on edge’. It felt like something wasn’t right, but when I went through my life bit by bit, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. What was making me feel like this? I felt anxious about the near future and had this feeling and constant worry that there was no ideal solution to all my work and childcare woes.
I just had no idea that being stressed would feel like that.
Experiencing racing thoughts and constant worry
A quick snapshot of a minute of two in my head would probably look like this:
“I’m late again. I just have too much on. Something needs to give. I hate going to work. But I need to go to work. I can’t leave my job. That’s not an option. But I can’t go on like this anymore. And I’d be home with the children. That’d be great. But I can’t throw all these years away. What about my career. If I leave I won’t be able to come back to it. What if I can do something else? But what could I do? Start my own business? No, that’d never work. But I’d be home with the children. But I can’t leave my job. I’m exhausted. I just can’t carry on.”
Are you tired just reading it? I was too. And my mind was going through this loop several times a day. I was told by a Life Coach that I reminded him of a pinball machine, and he wasn’t wrong. And I’d do this in the middle of the night too! I’d wake up and probably do this for an hour or so. Every night. It was exhausting. It was draining.
Which leads me to the next symptom…
It was pretty clear to me that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I put it down to the fact that my youngest son was only about 18 months at the time and still waking frequently in the night. The fact it’d take me ages to fall back asleep, in my mind, was only due to the fact that I’m just one of those people who take long to fall asleep. In November 2015 I bought a Fitbit to try and keep an eye on this, and I was shocked about the amount I used to spend awake or in restless sleep.
But none of this was down to my children.
Increased heart rate
When I started wearing my Fitbit, I noticed that my hear rate at rest was about 105. I often felt dizzy and could hear and feel my heart beating fast when I did the stairs. At 35 years of age, you’d think things shouldn’t be that bad. I went to the GP and had blood tests and an ECG. Everything looked fine. And I wasn’t given any other sort of explanation.
A year later, having removed a lot of the stressful factors in my life (office work and childcare arrangements) and having started to practice mindfulness meditation (on and off), my heart rate at rest is about 75 beats per minute. And I can’t feel my heart beating in my chest. I still have moments where I can catch myself getting stressed, and I’ll write more about that.
But back then, I basically had a lot of ‘texbook’ symptoms – feeling irritable, emotional and snappy, struggling to concentrate and make sensible decisions, stomach cramps (especially when at work), headaches… But the penny never dropped.
And I had to fall down the stairs and break my leg for the message to get through.
So I won’t get tired of telling people I see rushing around and never stopping that they need to slow down.
What are your thoughts? Can you think back about a time in your life when you were stressed? Or do you think you could be stressed now?