How can you tell if someone is suffering from high levels of stress?

The first easy sign is frequent complaints of having no time and too much do to.  Of course this is a common complaint amongst most people, but when this perceived lack of hours in the day and large workload starts to affect a person’s wellbeing, that’s when we know we have a problem.

There are many key indicators to help identify if a person has reached this level, each of which I’ll discuss in detail below, but generally they stem from poor routine and rituals in terms of looking after themselves.

Diet and Exercise.

Eating habits become poor and erratic, classically they either skip meals or eat too much in one sitting. An all or nothing mindset is typical, where they are either being good or bad. The common pattern with this is to be good during the day (by either eating less or cutting out a food group) and then become bad as the day goes
on.  Something happens to stress them out even more, they feel tired or just want to switch off, so they reach for the sugar or fat to pick them up.  Any food they do eat is often bought on the run or convenient, which makes it much more difficult to control the quality and nutritional value of the diet as options are more limited.
An all or nothing mentality is also favoured with regard to exercise. A highly stressed person will either go to great lengths to ensure they get an intense workout in, most days or they will do nothing at all, and even simple movement like walking rather than driving or taking the stairs rather than the lift is bumped down the list of priorities.
If the body is not receiving the right fuel or moving appropriately it affects energy, mood, concentration, weight management, digestion, life span, general health… and much more.

Sleep

With so much to do, sleep can also be pushed down the to-do list.
Studies have shown that performance significantly reduces in people who consistently have 6 hours of sleep per night (a regular amount among the busy), although interestingly the subjects felt like their performance was the same – a good demonstration of the effect sleep deprivation can have on perception and the mind.
The amount and quality of sleep can also be disturbed by an over-active mind. If the mind is constantly thinking about everything that needs to be done the brain thinks danger is present so it wants the body to be on its guard and ready to protect itself – clearly sleep is not conducive to this, so the highly stressed usually find it hard to fall asleep and wake up regularly throughout the night.

Physiological responses and general health

The body doesn’t understand the difference between a real or perceived threat so although someone may only be stressed about the amount of emails in their inbox, the body goes into fight or flight mode. This sets off a chain reaction of biochemical events in the body that can cause all sorts of issues.

Common signs of this include:

  • Low or inconsistent energy – often either feeling wired or exhausted
  • Weight gain or problems shifting weight particularly around the mid-section
  • Digestive problems – unexplained bloating and erratic bowel movements
  • Menstrual cycle irregularities – missed, late or painful periods
  • PMS – surprisingly women shouldn’t actually experience this!
  • Erratic moods
  • Anxiety
  • Increased injuries and common illnesses

Behaviours

Often the behaviours of a highly stressed person will be ones of extremes, again adopting that all or nothing strategy. In this situation it is common to see a person drink more alcohol, have later nights, eat out more, or on the flip side perhaps they will severely reduce communications with friends or loved ones, rarely go out socially or order in take away frequently. Anything that is not conducive to balanced and sustainable wellbeing is a warning sign.

If stress is work-induced, how can we get away from it and reduce our cortisol levels?

It is important to remember that stress is simply an emotion and is different for everyone. So while we may not be able to remove the thing that is causing you stress we can change your response to it, subsequently reducing or eliminating it as a stress to you. The first step is to go back to basics and ensure you have a solid foundation. I’m talking about getting crystal clear on what you really want and what’s truly important to you. Understanding your core values and what they mean to you is key – once you have this you can check in with them every time a stress pops up and assess if responding to it in the current way is serving you and your true needs, or if a different response would do this better.
For example, as mentioned previously our bodies respond to real and perceived stressors or threats in the same way. You see, although our world has evolved at a rapid rate our bodies are still essentially the same as they were thousands of years ago, so even if we’re just stressing about a deadline or getting to a meeting on time rather than a lion trying to hunt us down and eat us, the body still thinks we’re in danger so it sets off all the protective measures it has to ensure our survival.
Adrenalin and Cortisol are two key hormones involved in this process, and when not utilised as intended we are left with excess levels in our bodies, which are the main contributors to a lot of the physiological and health issues mentioned earlier. So, let’s say that one of your core values is your health (which it often is) – if you know that by responding to something as a stress is going to spark this tidal wave of reactions within your body, have a great impact on one of your core values and ultimately prevent you from achieving what you truly want, do you think that would motivate you to adopt a different reaction?

It’s amazing how powerful this simple mindset shift of always staying connected to what is really important to you can be – I’ve seen it completely turn around people’s behaviours and positively impact all areas of their lives.

How can exercise performance be affected by stress?

We now have a better understanding of how stress can affect the body, so it’s no surprise that this can also affect exercise performance in terms of motivation and power output if energy, mood and general health are down. What if you’re at the other end of the scale however and you’re one of those people who, although highly stressed, still goes to great lengths to ensure you get a regular intense workout in?
Of course you do this because you recognise the need for exercise and your health is important to you, but it is actually possible that exercising to this degree can be having a detrimental affect on your body also.  Exercise is indeed a stress on the body, when carried out correctly it doesn’t need to be a harmful stress, but if your body is already encountering many of the responses mentioned earlier then by consistently working out at a high intensity you’re simply adding fuel to the fire. Do you ever feel like no matter how hard you exercise you still don’t get the results you desire?
Of course there can be many different factors at play here, but a major one that is often over looked is the fact that you are simply increasing an already overstocked supply of adrenaline and cortisol, which among other things will inhibit fat loss and deplete your energy (the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve by exercising in this manner).

A morning, midday and afternoon ritual to help keep stress levels down

The key to keeping stress levels down is to stay connected: to what’s important to you, who you truly are and what you’re striving for. It’s easy to lose sight of this as the day goes on and all the external pressures start to influence your thoughts and behaviours, but regularly bringing yourself back to that solid foundation helps reduce this and therefore the stress.
  • Think of 3 things you’re grateful for
  • Take 10 deep slow belly breaths
  • Think of a time you were truly happy
  • Look at your values and goals
If I were me one year ago reading this article I’d think that what I’m about to say is fluffy rubbish and I haven’t got time for it. However, having restored my body after reaching rock bottom from years of stress trying to climb the ladder in my industry, opening a business and then watching it burn down, I can tell you that this absolutely is the key to long lasting and sustainable results. Sure it can be a bit confronting and the opposite to what you’ve always done and what you think you should do, but if you’re still not where you want to be don’t you reckon it’s worth a crack, especially since it will also save you time and enhance your performance in all areas of your life in the long run?
So in terms of a ritual, here are some suggestions. I encourage you to give everything a try and figure out what works best for you, and also use this as a gateway to explore other options that may also suit you.
Be grateful: First thing in the morning before you even get out of bed, think of 3 things you’re grateful for. It still amazes me how much my mood lifts whenever I
do this. It’s also a good one to do throughout the day as you feel your mood drop, take a quiet moment to get back to remembering the things that are good in your life.
Stay connected: Always keep at the forefront of your mind (or even have it physically present on your wall or desktop) what is important to you, and remember to always consult this when faced with a decisions or situations that may have previously caused you stress. If it’s not serving your greater purpose then move on or change the way you respond to it.
Breath deep: Take 10 slow deep belly breaths in and out of the nose. Count each one so you keep it steady, perhaps 4 or 5 counts for each breath in and each breath out, and pause and the top and bottom of each breath. Feelings of relaxation guaranteed with this one!
Meditate: There are a million apps out there now to assist you with this. This is the ultimate way to get yourself connected back to yourself. With so many things running around in our heads and so much connectivity it’s easy to get lost in our thoughts and forget to focus on ourselves and what’s really going on. By giving yourself even 5 minutes twice a day to bring yourself back to you, it will give you the mental space and clarity to move forward with even more momentum. It’s also a great way to energise yourself so I recommend an afternoon one before you hit that 3pm slump and reach for the coffee or sugar.

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