This time last year, I was trying to handle a 60-hour workload on 40 hours a week. I worked overtime constantly but never seemed to cross off everything on my to-do list. After work, I would come home, lay on my bed, and stare at the ceiling. I had all the classic signs of stress burn-out: trouble sleeping and concentrating, lack of motivation, headaches. I was able to write those off as seasonal affective disorder. What I didn’t realize, though, was that my body was throwing up red flags left and right. I was barrelling down the road to breakdown-city, and my body was trying to warn me.
Don’t get me wrong- stress isn’t always a bad thing. Stress is your body responding with everything it’s got to dangerous or emergency situations. However, when you work in a fast paced job like mine, everything is an emergency. I walk into drug houses with police officers, I deal with angry parents, I drive to homes in the middle of nowhere with no cell service. My body was WORKING by getting stressed out- but I was throwing too much at it, and it was starting to break down.
1. Shaking hands.
I quit caffeine during a particularly stressful time several years ago. I noticed that my heart would race and my hands would shake when I drank too much coffee, and finally swore it off. However, when the stress became too much, the shaking returned. I thought maybe I was just tired. Maybe there was some caffeine in that tea I had. Nope- stress was the main culprit. When I addressed the stress, my hands returned to their normal stability.
2. Sore jaw.
When you’re stressed, your muscles get tense. For me, all the tension landed in my jaws. I would find myself constantly opening my mouth, trying to stretch out the muscles. Or I would rub my jaw with my fingertips. Both pretty weird habits when you’re a professional trying to make a good impression. I tried to limit my gum consumption, thinking that I was just over-working my jaw muscles. In reality, I was over-working myself. Oops.
3. Getting sick.
Studies show that burnout is linked with excessive absenteeism. I know that when I’m stressed, there’s nothing I want more than to stay in bed all day. But stress actually does make you sick more often. Your immune system can’t keep up. This was one of my aha moments that led to me leaving my job- the stress was making me sick, but I liked being sick, because it meant I could stay home.
4. Not hungry… or TOO hungry.
Stress might cause you to lose weight, but don’t count on it as a diet plan- you’re just as likely to gain weight. The stress hormones can wreak havoc on your digestive system, which gets second-priority to what your brain perceives as emergency tasks. You might not notice you’re not eating- or you might not realize how much you are!
5. Digestive… issues.
There’s no way to be delicate about this, so I won’t even try. Stress can lead to a lot of time spent on the toilet or rushing to get their. Like I said above, when stressed, your brain puts non-emergency functions on secondary priority. Constipation or diarrhea can occur with high stress levels- sometimes even within the same week.
6. Shortness of breath.
The next time you are having trouble catching your breath, don’t panic- panic might actually be what’s causing your breathing problems. Try sitting down and focusing on your heartbeat. Breathe slowly in and out- gasping for air might cause hyperventilation, which won’t help matters. If your shortness of breath doesn’t resolve right away, obviously seek medical help, but know that stress is just as likely as asthma to cause these sorts of issues.
7. Ringing ears.
This one was a surprise to me. Laying in bed at night, I began to notice a ringing in my ears. It wasn’t quite as high-pitched as the tones concerts seem to cause, but it was just as annoying. I discovered that by moderating my breathing and focusing on calming myself, I could make the ringing go away. It actually became a great way to ‘check in’ with myself and my stress levels before going to sleep.
Dizziness and light-headedness is another lesser-known symptom of stress. Since dizziness can also be associated with dehydration and low blood sugar, make sure you’re eating and drinking enough in the midst of the chaos. If that doesn’t help, and you’re still feeling light-headed, take the hint and give yourself a break.
Whenever I get back from a vacation, like clockwork, my face breaks out. It’s mostly on my chin and forehead, though I sometimes get pimples on my cheeks, too. Stress management isn’t the most time effective acne treatment, though, so I try to keep my face clean while taking care of business.
The human body simply isn’t meant to maintain high-stress levels for very long. Stress is meant to get you out of life threatening situations, where you can recover. For those of us more susceptible to mental health concerns, abnormal levels of stress can trigger a longer, more serious mental illness. Stress isn’t just a fancy way of saying you’re overwhelmed- it’s a medical phenomenon that can lead to serious physical and mental consequences.
How can you tell when your body’s stressed? What do you do about it? Share below!