I’ve noticed more and more instances recently while working with some clients that are undergoing ongoing excessive stress, that they are unable to identify it for themselves, nor connect the dots of how it is affecting their lives. It’s not that they are stress-free and emotionally solvent, it’s more of a feeling that what they are going through is normal. Those who are unable to see or understand the effects of stress in their lives usually have a different perception of what feeling stressed is and how it shows up in their lives because it may be low level and easy to push aside.
Stress manifests in many different ways and in some ways more subtly than others. Subtle or not, the impact of ongoing excessive stress can wreak havoc on the mind, body, and relationships with others.
Experiencing stress is a perception unique to each person. One person may get a full blown panic attack whereas someone else may lose concentration and feel fatigued. It doesn’t mean that the person with the panic attack is more stressed than the person with fatigue, the body is just dealing with it differently. The intensity of the feelings may be vastly different, therefore it makes sense to think that the person with the panic attack must be more stressed than the person that really needs to take a nap. The perception may be where the disconnect happens.
Stress is tension or pressure by definition, and the three identifiable types we experience according the the American Psychological Association (APA) are acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress. Dr. Shawna Freshwater, PhD writes more about this in her blog. Put simply, acute stress comes on strong, is short-lived and is usually felt in the body. Think about having to give a speech in front of your colleagues, being in horrible traffic when you’re already late, or having an argument with your spouse. It’s palpable and easy to identify. Headaches, upset stomach, difficulty breathing, sweating and heart palpitations are all common reactions of acute stress.
Then there’s episodic acute stress. This is the kind of stress that happens when acute stress occurs frequently. People that are consistently under deadlines, take on a lot of responsibility, excessively worry, and live a demanding lifestyle that can seem chaotic typically fall under this category. The once acute symptoms now occur more often and a sense of normalcy of those symptoms and feelings arise. I’m sure you can think of at least a couple of people in your life that are under the spell of episodic acute stress if not yourself. In today’s busy modern lifestyle with so many demands, instant messaging, and keeping up with work and family life, episodic acute stress is extremely common amongst urban populations. But where do we draw the line at being unhealthy? On one hand we have to keep up and make a living and manage family life under these norms, but on the other hand, are we completely ignoring the signs of distress that could really impact our health negatively? Here are some of the common side effects of episodic acute stress that you can look out for:
- Emotional Distress: feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, outbursts, crying, and irritability
- Cognitive Distress: decreased attention span and memory retrieval, inability to learn and absorb information quickly, impaired decision making and mental fatigue
- Physical Distress: muscle tension, headaches, migraines, inexplicable body pains, heartburn, bowel problems, shortness of breath, chest pains, rapid heart rate, and high blood pressure
- Compromised Immune System: Frequently getting cold and flu-like symptoms, increase of allergies and asthma attacks, and autoimmune flare-ups
- Compromised Relationships: Interpersonal relationships suffer from all the distress, making it difficult to connect and arguments happen more frequently.
- Lack of Enjoyment: The overbearing worry and distress can overpower the drive to seek joy in life. The brain becomes wired to expect the next upcoming catastrophe.
This brings us to chronic stress, the most damaging stress of all. The signs can be similar to episodic acute stress, but a person with chronic stress has endured it for many years and it most likely originated from life altering traumas. Traumas such as adverse childhood events (ACEs), prolonged abuse, dysfunctional families, poverty, and oppression are common root causes. People with chronic stress may have a sense of hopelessness of anything changing because they’ve become accustomed to feeling this type of stress for so long that it becomes comfortable and familiar. Faulty beliefs that they or their circumstances cannot change, or that they are unworthy and undeserving of change are common among those who live in chronic stress. This type of stress can lead to other more detrimental consequences like nervous break downs, violence, suicide and serious long term illnesses. Although it can be challenging for a person with chronic stress to get help, it is the only way to break the cycle and improve overall health.
Circling back to those who don’t identify that they are under excessive stress; they may have adjusted to their new norm. Thoughts like “It’s just the way things are,” “I don’t have time to enjoy my life,” or “I always get migraines-it runs in the family,” may be signs that stress is accumulating, and needs to be addressed if a healthy life is desired.
There is always a choice and there are methods available to achieve a less stressful and more enjoyable life. Sometimes we fail to remember that the body is designed to feel vibrant and pain free, so when we get used to the opposite, it can be chalked up to other factors like age, genetics, family dynamics or even blamed on other people. The mind and body are very connected, and we’ve learned that emotional stress relates to physical stress and all the way down to how our genes are expressed. Neuroplasticity has shown us how the brain can be rewired to change and think differently, which means we can change our emotions, our reactions, and our physical and mental well-being.
If you realize that you may be experiencing ongoing stress, please do yourself a favor and reach out to a mental health professional or someone who specializes in stress management like a Clinical EFT Practitioner. Only you can make a difference for yourself; no one can do it for you. There is always a choice to live a healthier and happier and more harmonious life if you so desire it.