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How Stressed Is Too Stressed?

How stressed is too stressed? When is it okay to step back?

We’re all a little stressed right now, to say the least. Between work, family, social engagements, and all the things we should be doing, we’ve also been dealing with a worldwide pandemic. While we are stressed, a lot of us think we’re handling our stress well. But how stressed is too stressed? And when do your stress levels require a real response?

Stress and the Brain

Have you heard of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response? Most of us have. If it’s been a while since your last biology lesson, this response is our body’s reaction to an immediate threat, like a giant wolf, a scary movie, or ripping your pants in the mall.

Now, as seen above, the stress response can be very valuable. It helps you run from the wolf! It can save your life! The hormones rushing through your body serve a purpose in an instant.

But, if the stress response occurs when there is no danger, or occurs without any chance for rest that is when problems arise.

Chronic stress is the name we have given to living in a perpetually stressed state. There has been oodles of research on why chronic stress is awful for not just our mental health, but our physical health as well.

Stress causes weight gain, anxiety, fatigue, heart disease, and much, much more.

So how do you know that you are too stressed?

“Too Blessed To Be Stressed”

You may have heard this phrase before. And it is a great phrase in theory. Gratitude does play an enormous role in boosting positivity, mental health, and resilience.

But, it’s all too easy to start thinking that just because your life is “good” that you have no right to be stressed.

The truth is we all have the right to be stressed, and more importantly, we have to recognize when we are stressed in order to address it early and in a healthy way!

Take me for example.

I am a young, white woman. I have a job and no children. Money is not a (huge) concern to me. I build my hobbies around creativity and relaxation. Overall, I consider myself to be a very healthy person.

However, I feel exhausted, anxious, and hopeless. I frequently get headaches and stomach aches. According to a self-reported stress assessment, my stress levels are very high. High enough that I should focus on lowering them. (High enough that the assessment suggested I consider professional help).

But why is this so difficult for me to admit?

Part of my denial is stigma. I was raised in a household that believed hard work was paramount. Disliking your job was part of life. Part of my denial was also the idea that my stress is not as bad as other people’s. How can I be chronically stressed when there are people who are immunocompromised, in poverty, taking care of three kids on their own, or living hungry, on the street?

Feeling Like A Mental Illness Fraud

Photo by Sydney Sims

I know I’m not alone in this struggle. Everyone is stressed right now, and more of us should be seeking help with managing our stress.

As I mentioned above, my biggest struggle with mental health is admitting when I need help. I still like to think that I am capable of getting out of funks on my own, and forcing myself to relax.

But here is the thing.

Stress and mental illness are not bound to one person. Often, our environments impact our mental health deeply. This is why cleaning your bedroom can have such a profound impact on mental health. Relationships (surprise!) are also integral to our mental health. And, I know you won’t believe this, but world events have a huge impact on our stress levels!

I know, personally, that when it comes to world events, I try to tell myself that I can’t be stressed because I don’t have it nearly as bad as others. That’s just a fact. I have been a very lucky person.

But stress and mental health are not a competition.

You can be stressed about something that another person hasn’t even thought of. And you have just as much of a right to stress management as anyone else. If you feel like a mental illness fraud, don’t let that stop you from protecting your mental health. You do deserve it!

Stress Management When You Feel Invalid

Now, if you haven’t caught the pun, it is my duty as the person who wrote the pun to tell you about it.

When we are stressed – and I mean STRESSED – we cannot function properly. Our body is dealing with high amounts of hormones that it should only have to deal with in life threatening situations. In a way, we become invalids.

On the other hand, if you are anything like I am, you struggle to validate your stress. It is hard to feel worthy of mental health interventions if you are otherwise healthy. Stress is not a diagnosis in the handy-dandy psychology handbook (DSM-V). So how can you justify counseling for something that may not exist? How can you justify seeking help when so many other people need help first?

And so, invalid has two meanings. One, you are at a point where stress is impacting your functioning. Two, you struggle to validate your own struggle.

What. A. Conundrum.

If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone. There is a reason the past decade has been spent shouting mental health awareness from the rooftops.

So what can you do?

Photo by Christian Erfurt

Stressed? Validate it Here

For me, being able to admit that I am stressed is HUGE. Unfortunately, it is a difficult thing to do on my own. Luckily, I have a partner who is very understanding, and excellent at reading my moods. He then gives me the space I need to admit my stress, and manage it on my own terms.

Not everyone is as lucky as I am. That is where stress questionnaires come in. They are real sources that quantify your stress and let you know when you need to take some extra care managing it. I’ll be honest, when I saw the numbers behind my stress I was both blown away and relieved. I knew I wasn’t crazy!

Some physical indicators of stress include:

Emotional indicators include lashing out at others, anxiety, or avoiding thinking about important but stressful topics.

Stress Management At Home

Now, we all know the first rule of self care.

Bubble baths.

They are warm, soothing, and bring you back to a simpler time.

But, believe it or not, not everyone likes baths. Lots of people do not have access to a bath tub.

In that case, what are some other ways you can manage your stress at home?

Boundaries

Boundaries are key. Whether you live with kids, a significant other, your parents, or a roommate, personal space and alone time is key. This is a touchy topic for a lot of people, especially if you are used to giving your time to others.

So what are some ways to define boundaries when they weren’t there before?

Well, a frank and honest conversation is the first step. It doesn’t have to be long, but letting your partner know that you’re going to read for the night is a lot better than disappearing into your bedroom. If you have children, explain to them the importance of boundaries and solitude. This may take some extra work, but it also teaches your children that they are allowed to have their own space as well.

Listening to music with your earphones in, reading a book, or moving to another room are all physical ways that you can signify that you need space. But keep in mind that you may need to let your housemates know what this means, depending how skilled they are at reading body language.

An important note: boundaries are not the same as neglecting your relationships. Sometimes you do need to step away from a friendship or partner, but dropping contact without an explanation will not support that relationship.

No-Time

Sometimes, you are just exhausted. And you don’t want to do anything.

But the kids need to be dressed for school. The floor needs to be swept. You haven’t cleaned the bathroom in three weeks. Man, you should probably get that tax stuff together.

Pause. Take a deep breath. No.

We live in a society where our time is valued by how productive we are. This is great in theory, but contributes to the widespread stress we feel as individuals. Not every moment needs to be spent crossing something off your to-do list. In fact, by allowing yourself time to do nothing, you become more productive in the other hours of the day!

Many famous creatives and scientists embraced this concept!

If it makes it easier, add the no-time to your to-do list, so you can still feel like you’re crossing something off at the end of the day. It also doesn’t hurt to set boundaries on this no-time so that you can be sure to address your responsibilities.

Creativity

Singing, drawing, writing, dancing, painting.

Humans are a creative species. Culture is our manifestation of our desire to create something beautiful.

Yet, all too often, creativity is shoved to the side by the daily grind. This, for me, is one of the greatest drains on my energy. When I don’t have a creative outlet, I feel like an anchor is dragging me down.

So sing on your drive home! Incorporate some design aspects into your everyday job! Do a little dance when you’re making dinner or doodle in your notes. Mindful coloring is also a great way to reduce stress while stretching your creative muscles. A lot of people find relief in journaling or blogging.

And don’t let yourself stress if it is not perfect. Don’t worry about whether someone would buy your sketch in a store. Forget what the judges of Dancing With The Stars would say to your kitchen jig. Simon Cowell is not in your living room judging your impromptu karaoke.

Enjoy being goofy. It is one of the strongest antidotes to the stress of daily life.

The Serenity To Accept The Things I Cannot Change

And the final word of advice?

Let things go.

There are many things that take mental space. Why didn’t that person smile at me? Am I going to pay off my student loans? What am I going to eat for dinner? What if I’m not actually good at my job?

There are so many things to worry about in our immediate life, that we barely have time to stress about the big things.

When will I get my vaccine? What if someone I love gets severely sick? Who knows if I’m going to get T-boned driving to work tomorrow?

These worries, and the worries that are piled on by news outlets and social media, are toxic.

I have a rule in life – only worry about the things you have control over.

When I submitted my graduate applications, I washed my hands. It crossed my mind a couple of times. What if I didn’t get in? What if I wasn’t qualified? Ultimately, I knew that letting those thoughts invade my mental space wouldn’t help me get an answer any quicker. It just added to my stress.

Separating what you can and what you shouldn’t bother worrying about isn’t easy. Those with anxiety know better than anyone that we don’t control what worries circle our minds.

But, when you begin the process of separating what you have control over from what you don’t, you can at least see how many unnecessary things you are worrying about.

Am I stressed about COVID-19? Absolutely! Do I have to let that be my first and last thought of the day? Hell no!

Boundaries come in again here, but this time with input. Limit your time watching the news. Don’t read the social media feeds. Take a break! It is a freeing feeling, I promise.

Where To Find Help When You’re Stressed

The above are tips & tricks to help manage stress if you’re not ready to get professional help.

But sometimes we need a little outside perspective, and there is no shame in reaching out to a counsellor or therapist to talk about your problems. They can often shed a little light on the situation that you may not have considered before.

But psychiatrists are expensive, and it can be scary to tell someone else about your problems face to face.

So where can you turn?

Togetherall is a psychological community that is basically your common self-help chat room, but it is moderated by clinical psychologists, ensuring that the information shared is safe and accurate.

Jack.org is another online organization that seeks to connect people to mental health resources and education. If you are in need of support, Jack.org can direct you to services in your community.

If your stress levels are impacting your daily functioning, I highly recommend seeking out in-person counselling. Chances are it will help more than you even know.

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