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  • Writer's picturePaula Wilson-Young

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Stress

April is ‘stress awareness month’ in the UK and I think while most are aware of it as a concept I think it is something many folks underestimate how its compound effects can affect your health and are not necessarily able to recognise in themselves when they are feeling stressed (myself very much included! and don't know what the signs and symptoms f stress actually are - so cant recognise it in themselves.

What is stress?

At its core stress is a safety response our bodies have evolved to help us survive – NOT to thrive…

Its purpose is to help us assess imminent danger and make the right choice to keep safe. Our body is so very clever that it can alter our bodies own functions to allow us to properly deal with the perceived threat.

This ability to change functions is shows as a split in our nervous system function, The Yang and the Yin of the nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (aka fight/flight/freeze) and the parasympathetic system (rest and digest) – and I remember which is which in a kind of weird way (I wouldn’t be Paula if I wasn’t being a bit weird) – the parasympathetic does the opposite of what you expect – it is not paranoid, but is in fact when we are in perceived safety.

The Sympathetic is when we may freeze like the proverbial deer in headlights, or we fight off that saber tooth tiger, or we run away from that big scary bear in the woods.. back to the safety of our caves.

The genius of our bodies lies in its ability to modify its functions. If we need to freeze, fight or flight our physiology changes (how our bodies work), blood flow is diverted away from our digestive system to our limbs, our breathing changes to encourage more oxygen in (to fuel the muscles), our brain cant focus because they are always looking for that perceived threat, our immune system essentially goes to sleep to allow our precious energy to be used for our protection, we don’t sleep as deeply so we can keep one eye open, in extreme circumstances we even evacuate our bowels and bladder to conserve the energy.

Why is understanding this important to help you recognise the signs and symptoms of stress?

If your body lives under a state of constant low grade stress all these essential to THRIVE systems are not functioning at optimum, we are not digesting food well – so not getting the nutrients we need regardless of how good our diet is. We aren’t sleeping well, so our bodies aren’t fully resting, we aren’t healing from all the wee (and big) injuries. Our minds aren’t given the chance to process and integrate that days learnings. This leads to a vicious cycle of not being rested so pushing through, pumping ourselves full of caffeine just to function, which in turn tells our bodies we aren’t safe, so keeps us in that state of stress!

All this impaired function prevents us from living our lives fully, keeping us contained in survival mode - rather than being able to thrive.

How to recognise the signs and symptoms of stress in yourself?

This can be a hard one, and I know when we are in the depths of a stressful situation we can’t always see it.. hindsight is a very beautiful but annoying thing – and I know for me it’s been an after the fact realisation – but with hindsight comes the ability to learn, to reflect on how life was, how we behaved, how we felt and gives us the opportunity to make changes – to spot those patterns and interrupt them before they become a problem.

Signs to look for to know if you are stressed

1. Emotionally: overwhelmed, irritable ‘wound up’, anxious, fearful and low self esteem,’snappy/short tempered’, lacking empathy or sympathy, or conversely being 'overly emotional/sensitive,

2. Mentally: racing thoughts, constant worry, difficulty concentrating, difficulty in making decisions, self sabotage, procrastination, unable to rest, inability to finish tasks - unfocused.

3. Physically: headaches, muscle tension/pain, dizziness, sleep problems, lethargy, poor diet ie choosing processed/’junk food*’ - or over/undereating, shaking, feeling chilli, or hot flushes, butterflies/unsettled feeling in your stomach, digestive problems e.g. IBS, constipation, heart burn, shallow breathing, high blood pressure, getting ill as soon as you go on holiday.

*As a wee aside – I dislike phrases like ‘junk food’: no food is inherently good or bad – it’s the amount of it we consume that causes the problem! (its also the basic premise of Chinese Medicine – EVERYTHING in moderation is all good – but your moderation and my moderation in terms of what affects us can be drastically different and this is the key to optimising your own health - learning what your moderation is).

There has been lots of research that looked at the ‘poor health decisions (e.g. ‘junk food or alcohol consumption or smoking/vaping)’ folks in poverty make – and a good chunk of it is about not feeling safe and secure so stuck in that state of fear which leads to poorer decision making, along with of course, actual access to the money to pay for the ‘better quality’ food, clothing etc that would encourage better health and well-being. This need for stuff that while not ‘healthy’ offers comfort shows that compound effect of chronic low level stress can lead to decisions that on the surface don’t make sense – smoking isn’t cheap, so logically when your skint you don’t do it – but it offers comfort on so many levels that when stressed we don’t have the mental or physical capacity to get past that addictive part.

Could you be adding to your stress?

Caffeine first thing: our cortisol levels naturally rise in the mornings (its what wakes us up) so adding caffeine first thing (which also raises cortisol) spikes it, and can create that up and down energy - so when you can - hold off that coffee until around 11 am (which is the natural dip). You can also add an amino acid called L-Theanine as its been shown to help reduce anxiety and improve focus along side coffee. OR as I have recently done, ive switched from a 2-3 a day habit of energy drinks to a daily drink called Rainbow Dust by a company called Space Goods, and if you want you can use the code PAULA99270 to get a wee 10% off (this is an affiliate code so I also get a discount if you use it)

Worrying about stuff you can’t control: I know – much easier said than done, but I need to regularly remind myself of a few phrases I use e.g. Will this matter in 5 years time (or even 6 months), can I realistically change this situation? (e.g. being part of a traffic jam)

Not setting good boundaries with friends, family, colleagues. This can be agreeing who does what in the house, occasionally saying no (which is a complete sentence) (I usually add thanks just cos!).

Being a people pleaser. This closely links to boundaries – but trying to be all things to all people – one I know I struggle with too, but thankfully, as ever I am a work in progress.

Not napping: contrary to popular belief, napping during the day does NOT negatively affect your ability to sleep at night, it actually does the opposite. If you are tired and you don’t allow yourself to nap or at least rest, you are telling your body ‘its not safe’ so come night time when you do go to bed, your body says nae – its still not safe!!

Not resting: not giving yourself permission to slow down , to stop being all things to all people while also doing all the things will exhaust you and teach your body that it isn’t safe to relax- to shift into that glorious yin state of rest and repair.

Over exercise: exercise triggers that sympathetic nervous system (yang) which in moderation is fab, but over doing (or underdoing) can cause longer term issues with the body not being allowed into the parasympathetic (yin) state.

Shallow breathing: watch a baby sleeping – their belly moves.. as adults very often watching someone breathing is almost imperceptible. Our posture typically has us hunched over a desk, or even collapsed back on a sofa typically creates that same prawn like shape which limits our ability to take a full breathe.

What can you do to manage your stress?

This is probably the most useful bit and I have learnt lots of ways to help manage my stress load (trust me running a clinic/small business has some serious moments of absolute stress, as well as course as general life stressors).

  • Creating an attitude of gratitude. It has been scientifically shown that nurturing a gratitude mentality helps us manage stress, it helps to remind us that not EVERYTHING is bad – there is always wee moments of good, even in the baddest of bad. There are a variety of ways to do it, start or end your day think of three things you are thankful for for that day, or take time to write 50 thinks you are thankful for ABOUT YOU, or your achievements.

  • Stop watching the news: especially national/international stuff, for the reasons above of ‘can you do anything about it?

  • Acupressure on Heart 7 is gorgeous for helping us to calm down – if you struggle to switch off after work, trying doing that point every day when you finish work – even in the car park before you set off, and remind yourself that work is done

  • Switch off your phone – or at least all the many many notifications. The only noises my phone makes are for calls and text messages, emails will notify me, but no noise. All other apps have notifications OFF so I only look at them when I want to – not when they decide I should respond.

  • Simplify your life where you can to reduce decision fatigue – famously Mark Zuckerberg (facebook creator) wears the same clothes every day. The gorgeous Timber Hawkeye (writer of Buddhist Boot Camp) does similar, eats the same thing every day for breakfast so its one less thing to think about, perhaps create a food plan so your not stressing about what dinner is tonight..

  • Breathe work – if your familiar with me you’ll already know about my favourite – the box breathe (link here) but there are loads of techniques to slow your breathing down, which helps tell your body your safe. Alternatively, whenever you remember raise yourself taller and take a deep breathe – spend a minute or two taking nice deep slow breaths where you completely fill every aspect of your lung and also completely empty them. You can feel your belly moving out, your chest raising, the side of your ribs can move outward and feel the back expanding and the shoulders raising.. then reverse squeeze every last bit of that breathe out, compress your shoulders, squeeze in your sides, your chest drops your belly squeezes in and up slightly. Do that a few times and youll soon realise how LITTLE you move when breathing below your conscious, and no I am not suggesting you have to breathe like that all the time, but take moments to get aware of your breathing and feel your body move in that gorgeous rhythmic way it does when we take slow deep breathes. Breathework – conscious breathing is a whole topic in and of itself, but its also free to take a moment or two out your day to take a few steady breathes, which will help your body shift into that glorious yin state of rest and digest. If it helps - set a reminder on your phone or in your diary to help remind you to breath consciously a few times a day.

  • HAVE A NAP – call it a disco nap, a nanny nap, a siesta – whatever works for you

  • Change out your caffeine for herbal teas, personally I don’t like camomile, but love Pukka’s peace tea, or go all out and get Rainbow dust – an adaptogenic blend (i.e. regulates your nervous system).

  • FIND the time to do the things you love – hug a tree, potter in your garden, try out different hobbies, call/visit with your bestie and tell them you need to VENT and or problem solve.

  • Eat a ‘bland’ diet – which in TCEAM terms means eating balanced – so not too spicy, too cold (I will be sharing more on this later in the year).

  • Go scream somewhere ( I once went to windleas wind farm and screamed and screamed - incredibly cathartic!) check out my silent scream tool.

  • Most importantly ASK FOR HELP: be that a friend, family member or seek out someone like us – a talking therapist, hypnotherapist, an acupuncturist (AHEM -MEEE!!!), massage can help you relax, osteopathy can deal with the physical disfunctions that can simultaneously be causing your stress and caused by it, see a herbalist for a prescription, a life coach to help you get clear on what you need and create goals and plans and accountability to help you move forward – out of survival mode and into THRIVE, or even your doctor for some advice, personally I don’t think pills are the answer as they typically only mask the problem rather than solve it – but extreme states require extreme measures.

Stress is a very necessary part of our life, we need it to meet deadlines, to stay safe. However, it was only ever designed to help with short term stressors that posed imminent threat to our health and well-being. Life for many of us now a days has us celebrating 'busy': doing and being ALL the things, from a super powerful career person, with a 'side hustle' and dependant children, pets, older parents that need us, our friends that need us, and that we want to be with, the tv we choose to watch, the games we play, the physique we are meant to maintain, the awareness of our planet, of the wider abuses/wars in the world, the increasing prices, the tory government stripping our rights, the seemingly collapsing NHS (Oft - its uncomfortable just writing all that!) We are being encouraged to live in a very Yang state and discouraged from the Yin activities - resting, recuperating, nourishing our bodies and giving them a chance to digest, to heal, - both should absolutely have their place, get help when you need it and take some time to implement some small changes that will add up to massive shifts - allowing you to thrive.

We are here to help: in addition to the therapies on offer at the clinic I can offer support and guidance in the form of coaching - drop me a message to find out more.

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