Stress. It’s like an unwanted party guest that somehow always manages to find a way in, and usually by the time you realise, it’s already made itself at home.
According to Dr Suzy Green, clinical psychologist and founder of The Positivity Institute, stress can be hard to identify for a number of reasons. “I think particularly in our culture, and primarily in the major cities, we’re all so busy and we’ve got so many opportunities and options that it creates busy-ness. Sometimes you don’t recognise it,” she explains.
Stress can creep in even when you’re doing something you love, or that you find exciting and engaging – it’s not always a result of a job you’re desperate to leave or a volatile relationship.
“They actually differentiate between good stress and bad stress. Good stress is healthy, but even exciting things like a promotion or opportunity can cause stress for us,” Dr Green says.
Another obstacle to recognising stress is that it can present in so many ways. As a practitioner, Dr Green has witnessed stress symptoms ranging from ‘funny tummies’ to alopecia. “For some people, it comes out in their physical body – they might get sick or come crashing down physically. For others, they might be a bit more irritable or not their normal self,” she says. Stress can also exacerbate those little habits like nail biting or teeth grinding.
Understanding your physical or emotional responses to the onset of stress comes down to self-awareness. Although no two people experience stress in the same way, Suzy says there are some common, often surprising, ways it can present. Here are 6 of them.
Common stress signals
1. You notice yourself being reactive
If you’ve find yourself suddenly reacting to situations that you wouldn’t usually bat an eyelid at, there’s a good chance you’ve been bottling up stressful feelings, or haven’t realised how stressed you are. “The main thing I see as a practitioner is you find yourself reacting, rather than responding,” Dr Green explains.
This is because stressful situations can trigger our instinctive ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. “When we stress, the fight or flight – our sympathetic nervous system – is sort of up higher. Usually, this mechanism is meant to be down low and it kicks in when we need it, but it’s much more sensitive when you’re stressed. It takes one thing to go wrong and you can go off the handle – you’re not your usual calm, responsive self.”
2. You’re feeling tense
A common way stress manifests is in muscle tenseness. Some people experience that sore, tight feeling across their back and shoulders. For others, it might be in their neck or jaw.
“When you’re stressed, you might hold muscular tension and again, often we’re not even aware of this. When you hold tension a long time it can cause a lot of problems in your body,” Dr Green explains, adding that often our brains don’t even recognise this physical tightness and need to be coached into doing so. If you start practicing relaxation exercises, it can take 6-8 weeks before you can train your brain to start to recognise tension and … to learn to more consciously relax that muscle,” she explains.
3. Feedback from loved ones
The last thing you want to hear when you're under pressure is a friend or family member's observation that you "seem stressed". However, regardless of how self-aware you think you are, if those closest to you are saying you seem strung out, there's a good chance they're spot on.
"Often you’ll get feedback from people around you, who know you well, that you aren't your usual self. We need to not be defensive, and to be open to the people who’ll give you that feedback," Dr Green says.
When you're juggling a lot of balls, there's a good chance some of them will drop - and so it is when you're feeling stressed. It's not uncommon for your memory to suffer when you're preoccupied with other aspects your life. You might leave your keys in an odd spot, or forget an appointment.
"Because you're worrying about things, your mind isn't in the present. You might forget things, or you're not on the ball and make mistakes you typically wouldn't make," Dr Green says.
5. Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)
Stress can cause the ANTs to come marching in. These are negative thoughts that can reduce your confidence, so that rather than believing you can deal with situations or challenges, you start asking yourself, 'Oh my God, how am I going to do that?'
"With stress you have a lot of negative thinking, rather than thinking you can do it, you think you can’t and start catastrophising about things a lot," Dr Green says. "Stress, in a nutshell, is the thought that you don’t have enough resources to cope with the challenges at hand. You get stressed when you have too much to do or not enough time to do it."
6. You stop doing things to manage your stress
Ironically, lurking feelings of stress can prevent you from doing the things that usually help you manage it in the first place. These could be your hobbies, your social life, or in particular, your fitness regimen.
"Often when you’re stressed the first thing to go is exercise. People say, 'I haven't got time for that', and I say, 'you haven’t got time not to'," Dr Green explains. "Exercise is a non negotiable for stress management. You can’t not do it ; it’s what dissipates the adrenalin out of you. It helps you think more clearly and make better decisions."
What you can do
Dr Green says there are a number of techniques you can employ to deal with stress when it strikes, and to prevent it creeping back in.
"Exercise needs to be part of all our life timetables," Dr Green iterates. "When you’re under the pump, when the curve balls come and you've got a number of stressors, you need to up the ante. If your regimen is 3 times a week, I’d be pushing it up to 5."
Working through stress in a purely physical way first will help you reframe and challenge negative thoughts, allowing you to better assess situations. "Get it out of your body, get the adrenalin out of your system. Then you’ll find yourself thinking more clearly about things," Dr Green says.
It seems obvious, but proper breathing is holds great power in reducing stress.
"Learning very simple abdominal diaphragmatic breathing techniques is a very powerful and affordable way to manage stress on the spot," Dr Green says. "Breathing techniques, like Buddha breathing or abdominal breathing, have also been shown to reverse panic attacks, which are an extreme form of a stress attack."
3. Set up a life timetable
Dr Green often asks her clients to draw up a weekly timetable, entering their absolute priorities and commitments first, then locking in time for activities that benefit health and wellbeing. "It could be meditation or a mindfulness class, or a hobby; any activity that’s going to give your brain a rest from some of the stress," she says.
"Just making sure they’re entered into your diary can be very helpful. If you’re not specific about when you’re going to do something, you’re not going to do it."
4. Try a goal setting program
Whether it's a body challenge or a FebFast-style event, Dr Green says programs that encourage you to set goals and follow them through can be immensely helpful. "Generally, 12 weeks is a great kick start for someone looking to re-evaluate their life, reduce stress and improve their wellbeing," she says. "If you can recruit a buddy and do it together there’ll be some accountability about applying that to your life. It’ll enhance your chance of actually doing it rather trying to make it happen yourself."
Dr Green also recommends Priceline Pharmacy's new Health Tracker, which has a number of tailored programs that can help you set and work towards health goals.
How do you deal with stress?
You can follow Dr Suzy Green on Twitter at @drsuzygreen, and The Positivity Institute on Facebook here.