In our fast paced society we’re always working towards some kind of goal – work, family, or personal related. Often, we feel measured by our productivity and the amount of energy we’re expending. That wears us down and can cause a significant source of stress. In this blog, we’re going to take a look at stress and how to know if you’re “too stressed.”
What Is Stress?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines stress as a “physical or mental response to an external cause.” NIMH further explains that stress is typically short lived and will stop once the external stressor ends; however, if stress is chronic you may be at risk for developing mental health concerns.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law suggests that there is an optimal relationship between pressure and performance. But, what does that really mean? We need some level of pressure to reach our best performance. Too little pressure and we may not feel motivated enough to work towards our goals, but too much pressure can cause stress and lead to burnout.
Counselor Emily says,
“I typically teach my clients that emotions exist on a continuum and range from low to high. In order to visualize this concept, I use a range from 1 to 10, where ‘1’ is a low level and ‘10’ is a high level. Let’s take happiness for example: Happiness rated a ‘1’ may look more like contentment which means you feel satisfied in the moment; whereas, a ‘10’ could represent you feeling ecstatic meaning you’re the happiest you’ve ever been. Then you can rate situations and thoughts on that scale in comparison to other events or thoughts you’ve had in the past. For example, a kid may feel a ‘3’ level of happiness getting to watch their favorite TV show, but a ‘9’ learning they’re going to Disney World next week. An important takeaway is that each person has an individualized rating scale for their emotions and no two people will label experiences the same. You can use the scale technique for any of your emotions!”
Now, let’s look at Emily’s method as it relates to stress:
- Make a stress scale from 1 to 10.
- Take a few moments to identify what it feels like to have a low level of stress: What kind of thoughts are you having? What are you feeling in your body? For example, Kyle is reporting a low level of stress and thinking “I have plenty of time to work on my project,” knowing he has two weeks to finish it. Kyle reports his body feels calm, his breathing is slow, and his mind is clear.
- Now imagine a level “10” stress, the most stress you have ever felt. What thoughts are racing through your mind? What sensations do you feel in your body? Let’s take another look at Kyle: Kyle expressed that he is the most stressed he has ever felt before. Kyle stated his thoughts are racing about multiple projects at work, getting the kids to and from their extracurricular activities, and leading a new committee. Kyle reported his heart was racing, his breathing was rapid, his palms were sweaty, and he felt dizzy.
What Are Symptoms Of A Hyper-Aroused Nervous System?
In the example above with Kyle, he experienced high levels of stress in a hyper-aroused nervous system meaning his body is alert and prepared to fight. Common symptoms of his hyper-aroused state are:
- Increased Heart Rate
- Rapid Breathing
- Racing Thoughts
What Are Symptoms Of A Hypo-Aroused Nervous System?
Not everyone experiences high level stress as a hyper-aroused nervous system. Some may experience a hypo-aroused nervous system, meaning a collapsed response. Common symptoms of this hypo-aroused state are:
- Shallow Breathing
For more information about hyper-aroused and hypo-aroused nervous systems, Synergetic Play Therapy by Lisa Dion is a great resource.
What Is Too Much Stress?
It is important to feel connected to your body and understand how your body responds to stress. This understanding will help you learn what steps to take to help manage and decrease your stress level. Having a fluctuating stress response is normal, especially when our schedules and life demands change. But, how do you know when stress is too much?
Too much stress could look like:
- Consistently experiencing high levels of stress
- Stress response that lasts for hours or day
- Stress that disrupts your sleep (Example: Staying up too late to finish work or racing thoughts that keep you awake)
- Stress that interferes with your relationships and makes you feel disconnected from others
The Mayo Clinic says signs of increased stress can also include muscle pain, restlessness, irritability, sadness, substance use, and changes in eating habits.
Noticing the above signs could indicate a need for additional support. Our counselors at Garrett Counseling are equipped to support you in identifying what is bringing you stress and support you in learning to manage the stress you’re experiencing. Contact us today at (256) 239-5662 or online to schedule an appointment!
This article was written by Emily Tester, a mental health professional at Garrett Counseling in Huntsville, AL. Learn more about Emily here.