Stress Is the New Normal
Surveys show that while everyone agrees that stress makes us unhealthy and unproductive, 83 percent of us are doing nothing about it. It's because people and companies have given up. They've accepted stress as if it were the new normal. But recognizing the various symptoms and signs you're stressed—and the way they affect your memory, your thinking, your relationships, and mood—can help empower you to take a different tack.
You have trouble making decisions.
Why: One study found that when rats experience episodes of uncontrollable stress, they can’t reliably identify the larger of two rewards. What's more, their decision-making stays impaired for several days. The greater the stress, the greater the chance we'll make bad decisions. Here are some other, scary ways that stress impacts your brain.
You have a shorter fuse, feeling more impatient and on edge.
Why: Stress is closely related to fear. When we're afraid that we are at risk, the brain shifts into survival mode. The amygdala, the brain’s fear center, activates fight, flight, or freeze, which makes us aggressive, angry, or defensive. Evolution determined that a hostile stance was a better survival strategy in the event of a threat than peace and loving kindness. While this is quite true if you're faced with a grizzly bear, few of us are ever threatened by a wild animal. Our plunge into an edgy emotional state is one of the signs you're stressed over an imagined threat that doesn't exist. Employ one of these mini-meditations next time you're feeling particularly stressed and anxious.
You criticize your partner and focus on the flaws in your relationship.
Why: Fifteen years of research by Benjamin Karney of the University of California at Los Angeles found that the greater the stress, the more reactive we'll be to the normal ups and downs at home. One of the signs you're stressed is when you're more inclined to argue, blame, criticize, and withhold affection. We're more likely to judge the relationship as negative and blame our loved one for a problem, not realizing that stress is distorting our perception. Stress hormones also lower our sex drive. Here are some more clear signs that stress is hurting your relationship.
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You eat more or have lost your appetite.
Why: Two-thirds of people eat more under stress, while the rest eat less. The stress hormone glucocorticoid stimulates appetite, and it can take hours to clear the bloodstream, prompting emotionally charged overeating when we're stressed.
Your memory and concentration fizzle.
Why: One of the signs you're stressed? Acute psychological stress thwarts working and prospective memory and takes neural resources away from executive function networks. That's a technical way of saying that stress causes memory lapse, attention issues, and hinders your higher brain's ability to plan and execute.
You’re fatigued most days.
Why: Stressful days keep your brain's stress response system turned on almost nonstop. It dumps stress hormones into the blood system, which in turn accelerates heart rate and respiration. It activates the sympathetic nervous system that mobilizes our fight, flight, or freeze response. This system uses a lot of energy and can make us feel exhausted by the end of the day. Besides one of the signs you're stressed, here are some other reasons you could be tired all the time.
You either can’t get to sleep or don’t want to get out of bed.
Why: Studies have shown poor sleepers to have higher levels of stress hormones in their bloodstream. These chemicals not only decrease the total amount of sleep we get but can compromise the quality of whatever shuteye we end up getting. When we wake up, we have even less energy than the day before. Try one of these relaxation techniques to relieve stress and wind down for bed.
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You feel less confident about your ability to handle personal problems.
Why: Buildup of stress hormones can make us depressed and lower self-esteem. We lose the brain chemistry that enables us to stay on top of a situation.
Simple things feel hard.
Why: Stress hormones spike the brain chemical dopamine, which can create a decline in cognitive performance. One of the signs you're stressed is that even easy tasks (say, juggling the laundry, emptying the dishwasher, and signing kids' permission slips) feel difficult to manage. Also, stress can cause us to stop looking for new ways to approach old tasks because behavior tends to habituate when the brain is under stress. We get locked into doing the same unproductive thing over and over. Try one of these stress-relieving tips if you find yourself in the same stressful routine.
You enjoy your favorite activities less and less.
Why: During high-stress situations, interactions between a stress hormone called adrenal glucocorticoid and serotonin receptors in the brain interfere with our ability to experience pleasure and remain motivated. Serotonin levels that are consistently off-balance produce the brain chemistry that leads to depression—make sure to know the warning signs.
You’ve become less social.
Why: People tend to isolate when they're chronically stressed, but this can make stress even harder to cope with. Research shows that Type-A personalities actually shun the very social support that can buffer a stressful day.
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You’ve started using alcohol, cigarettes, or other substances more.
Why: Stress hormones trigger substance abuse and cause a greater chance of relapse in recovering alcoholics.
The End of Stress
You can rewire your brain to become more resilient to the negative effects of stress, argues Don Joseph Goewey in his new book The End of Stress. Learn more here about his four-step plan to extinguish stress reactions and amplify the higher brain function linked to success in life, joy at work, and peace at home.