These days our lives seem more stressful than ever; the demands of life can make us feel under too much mental or emotional pressure and this turns into stress.
We all have different ways of reacting to stress, and there are many different causes of it, particularly work, relationships and money problems.
Stress can affect how you feel, think and behave, but despite all this information it is difficult for the untrained eye to spot the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
So we have created a guide about spotting the signs of stress, including the physical symptoms, emotional and behavioural symptoms of it.
The guide also highlights ways you can treat the early signs of stress as our relaxing spa hotels offer a range of treatments that can help you reduce that stress.
Stress occurs when we are under too much pressure and feel unable to cope. It is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response.
We all react to it in different ways, for example, a certain situation may feel stressful to one person, but is motivating to someone else.
Stress causes a surge of hormones in your body, which are then freed to enable you to deal with pressure or threats. Once this pressure has gone, your stress hormone levels return to normal, but if you are constantly stressed these hormones will remain in your body.
The human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. In fact stress actually has its positives, as it keeps us alert and ready to avoid danger. But it becomes negative when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation.
This is when stress-related tension builds up, which can lead to physical and mental problems, but there are a number of different symptoms you can look out for.
The Ed Psych Practice explain some of the initial signs, “First signs of stress may include eating more, low energy levels, disrupted sleeping patterns, difficulties with concentration and emotional outbursts that are out of character, irritability, withdrawing socially or increasing one's social life and drinking more. It is very important to acknowledge and recognise the stress factor, it is only natural not to want to deal with it.”
David Morris, who is assistant psychologist at Changing Minds UK, says everyone experiences stress, “We all experience stress to some degree and there are many stressors in modern life (such as difficulties at work, home, in our relationships, or with money). However, at times our stress may become problematic and may affect our overall health. It can therefore be useful to learn the signs that we might be starting to struggle with our stress levels, and then think of ways to alleviate this.”
With this in mind we take you through the different symptoms to look out for in yourself, a family member or your friends.
There is a lot of truth in the phrase “stress eating”, as research has shown that weight gain is linked to stress.
If stress persists then your appetite will ramp up and your food preferences will be affected, with foods high in fat and sugar becoming more favoured foods.
Jo Travers, registered dietitian and author of The Low-Fad Diet, goes into detail about how a change in eating habits is often a sign of stress.
“A change in eating habits is often a sign of stress. The urge to comfort-eat is actually a very strong sign that something isn’t right but even giving food less of a priority in your life can be a sign that stress is getting on top of you. Eating is something we have to do all the time and there will always be occasions when you don’t have the time to cook, or shop, or you can’t be bothered to make a meal, but when that becomes the norm, it might be time to recognise that you aren’t looking after yourself as well as you could be.
“The trouble is that when eating well becomes less of a priority, our nutritional status can suffer. We may not get all the nutrients we need if we aren’t getting a balanced diet; or if we rely too much on convenience foods then our fat, salt and sugar intake may go up. When these things happen it can affect our health and this in turn can affect our ability to function properly. Then, dealing with stress becomes more difficult and we find ourselves in a downward spiral.”
Laura Clark, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist who founded LEC Nutrition, explains scientifically how eating too much can affect you.
“Unfortunately our body’s response to stress is still that of a caveman! Although we have moved on in life our body interprets stress as if it were life threatening. Faced with what we perceive as adversity, our natural fight or flight mechanisms kick into action.
“Our response to a stressful situation is to react immediately, aiming to resolve the situation quickly and efficiently. The body is only concerned with immediate fuel for the brain, heart and muscles. Glucose is ready for active muscles to take up and use to run! However, with stress at work you might not necessarily be ‘running’ anywhere! Ongoing stress will cause cortisol levels to remain persistently high. This will disturb sleep and digestion as blood is taken away from the digestive organs.
“Cortisol also suppresses how insulin works which means in the long term you are more at risk of weight gain. Cortisol will also convert protein to fuel – you don’t need protein to repair and replenish your muscles if you’re going to get eaten by a tiger.”
The Heath Therapies say that there are four stages of stress, and that the initial signs are not obvious ones.
Felix Economakis, who is the director of the Heath Therapies and a chartered psychologist, says there are a number of warning signals that could mean you are suffering from stress and these include:
•Feeling that need to stretch
•Yawning or agitation
•Concentration spacey, mind wanders
•Body tense – fatigue, moving around in our chair a lot
•Feeling depressed and distracted (careless errors begin happening)
Stress Headaches are one of the most common symptoms of chronic stress.
These headaches can be identified from a constant ache on both sides of your head, a tight neck and the feeling of pressure behind your eyes.
According to Strictly Stress Management there are a number of other symptoms that could run alongside these stress headaches.
“The checklist to diagnose chronic stress includes questions about jaw clenching, teeth grinding, tight or sore muscles, dizziness and, of course, headaches. As you probably already know, chronic stress is prolonged exposure to extreme stress. It stands to reason you may have some headaches.”
Another signal that you are suffering from stress is that you are making serious mistakes at work.
Everyone makes mistakes, but it is when you find yourself making lots of serious errors at work that you may be suffering from too much pressure.
You may notice that your ability to learn becomes impaired and that you are feeling like you are unable to handle information.
Insomnia is a very serious and scary indicator of stress. It comes in different forms and has varying effects, but if you find it hard to fall asleep, are waking up often during the night, maybe even earlier than normal, or are feeling unusually tired in the morning then you could be suffering from insomnia.
If you are stressed and can’t sleep then you will be suffering from primary insomnia, which is not directly associated with a health condition or problem.
There are many causes of insomnia, but one of the main roots of the problem is a significant life stress that you are going through. This could be losing or changing your job, the death of a loved one, a divorce or moving home.
You may find that you are a bit more irritable, frustrated, moody and are quicker to experience these negative emotions. These are tell-tale signs that you are stressed.
There are many reasons that stress has a tendency to lead to agitation, but at its core is nervous energy as it puts your entire body on edge because it’s preparing you for fight or flight. When there is no danger present, this energy becomes unused and leads to you feeling agitated.
There are a number of physical symptoms that could be caused by stress and here are some others you should be aware of:
•Frequent colds and infections
It is important to consider participating in activities that will recharge you, and if you just want something peaceful that is completely stress-free then enjoying calming spa treatments should be right at the top of your list.
Felix Economakis from the Heath Therapies stresses the importance of doing an activity that will recharge you.
He says, “Consider activities which recharge you - this will vary between individuals as some are more 'active' rechargers (will play sports to unwind) and some will recharge best in a peaceful relaxing environment.
“In addition, nature, pets, good company, pampering and self-care all help recharge us and help put things back in perspective. Champneys can offer a range of treatments that most people would consider replenishing and recharging!”
We all know the physical benefits of exercising as it helps improve your physical condition and with fighting disease, but it’s also vital for maintaining your mental fitness as it can help reduce stress.
Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa and Dr Peter Petrie, who are the doctors at Your Doctor, said, “Exercising is a great way to deal with stress because it can help clear your mind, give you a chance to focus on something else and can release some of the intense emotion you’re feeling so that perhaps you will be able to look at the issue with a clearer head.”
Mike Gough from the junior doctor’s website What the Bleep explains how exercise helped him deal with stress.
He says, “When I started work as a doctor I found my life suddenly got very stressful all of a sudden, dealing with high pressure situations, varying shift patterns and it wasn't long before it started to impact on the rest of my life.
“I wasn't sleeping, I constantly had a headache and I was short tempered. I made it my mission to make sure I found ways to manage the stress. I found that going out for a run, or a bike ride 2-3 times during the week really helped me switch off.”
Many experts encourage people who are stressed to use breathing exercises to relieve stress as it can lower blood pressure and promote feelings of calm and relaxation.
Deborah Stone, the co-founder of the My Ageing Parent website, says breathing exercises can not only help people to relax or de-stress, but can help reduce respiratory problems.
Here Deborah Stone explains the different techniques you can use, “People often take much shallower breaths than they should, especially when stressed or anxious and also when lung capacity is limited.
“If you try to breathe more deeply, it will help you to relax and to breathe more efficiently. Sit straight and breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose. You should feel your stomach expand as you breathe in. Then breathe out slowly through your mouth. Keep repeating it, ideally for 10 minutes or longer if you can.
“Another breathing technique is particularly useful if you are having trouble sleeping. This time, breathe out through the mouth, so that the air you exhale make a whooshing noise. Then close your mouth and breathe in and hold your breath for a count of seven. Then breath out of the mouth again for a count of eight, making the same whooshing noise and repeat 10 times.”
Nicotine, caffeine and alcohol are the most widely consumed psychotropic drugs worldwide and Your Doctor, who work closely with us at Champneys, say it is important to avoid consuming all three if you feel stressed.
“They may seem like things that would calm you but in actual fact caffeine and nicotine are stimulants so they will increase feelings of stress and alcohol is a depressant so can affect your outlook on a situation as well as adversely affecting sleep.”
Eating a balanced diet with low-fat, high-fibre and carbohydrate-rich meals with lots of fruits and vegetables can help you keep your energy levels up and give you the nutrients you need to boost your immune system. Carbohydrates have also been found to produce serotonin, a hormone that relaxes us.
LEC Nutrition’s Laura Clark says it is vital to eat a balanced diet and to regulate your sugar level.
“Whilst food cannot claim to cure stress, it is worth noting the benefits of a regulated blood glucose (sugar) level. Large swings in blood glucose can cause irritability and poor, ‘reactive’ food choices which don’t go towards supporting our bodies at all. Regulated blood glucose levels can be achieved through aiming for a balance to your meals.
“This means some wholegrain carbs such as wholemeal pitta, bulgur wheat, quinoa or brown rice noodles put with some lean protein such as chicken, eggs, fish or seafood and plenty of crunch in the form of salad and veggies.
“Balanced eating will also encourage maximal uptake of the amino acid tryptophan which is needed for serotonin production. Serotonin will work to counteract the effects of raised cortisol levels.
“Stress also tends to cancel out willpower so design your office environment to make the best, healthiest choices the easiest to consume. What you see is what you eat and we don’t think as much as we think we do!”
Jo Travers, the owner of The London Nutritionist, also says it is important to get a balance of nutrients and shares some tips on how you can achieve this.
“Aim to get a balance of nutrients at meal times. Fill half your plate with veg or a mix of fruit and veg (for micronutrients and fibre); a quarter of your plate with carbohydrate (for energy); and a quarter with protein (for cells, the immune system and hormones). If you do this, you will very likely get everything your body needs. Try to have whole grains when you can (granary bread, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, beans etc.), and some plant-based proteins as well as meat and fish.
“Make as much time as you can to eat well, and when you haven’t got time to cook, make use of things like ready-chopped vegetables and ready cooked meat and fish that can be heated in a couple of minutes.”
Following a de-stress routine is a great way to reduce stress. It is important to realise that when you start building your own routine everything on your list has to be something that really works for you as something that may work for a friend or family member may cause you more stress.
Your Doctor, says, “Stress can stop us sleeping well so try and have a good routine. Avoiding laptops and phones an hour before sleep.
“Prioritise having some “downtime” before going to sleep. Reading before bed may help you unwind. Having a bath can have a very soothing effect on our body and mind. Some say the sensation unconsciously takes our mind back to a time when we were in the womb. Following a regular routine is helpful.”
According to My Ageing Parent’s co-founder, Deborah Stone, mindfulness meditation can also help if you are feeling stressed.
“A study in in Los Angeles of people aged 55+ who had trouble sleeping were asked to follow a mindfulness programme. After six weeks, the participants showed improvements in their sleeping.
“People in this meditation group also saw improvements in terms of their levels of fatigue and depression. The findings suggest that ‘mindfulness meditation’ may be introduced to older adults as a short-term solution to assist with moderate sleep disturbances. Previous studies had shown that other types of mind-body exercise, such as tai chi, can also improve sleep.”
If you are feeling stressed then sometimes it can be easy to isolate yourself from your friends and family, but you should approach them with your problems and sit down and talk with them about everything you feel or experience. It is important not to think that you are bothering them because most probably, you are not.
Your Doctor’s Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa and Dr Peter Petrie, add, “Stress can stop us seeing a situation clearly and talking to someone else about what is wrong might help you see a situation with new eyes or help you find a solution. You can also stop pretending and therefore spend your energy on getting better.”
David Morris from Changing Minds UK, says, “Talking to family or friends is recommended. You can also seek support from your GP who will be able to give you more information about ways to manage stress. The Samaritans also offer a telephone support service on 08457 90 90 90.”
Sometimes writing things down can really help, and stress diaries are important for understanding the causes of stress as well as giving you an insight into how you react to stress.
Dominique, who runs True Stress Management, shares some tips for starting a diary, “Start by identifying your stressors and recording your physical and mental reaction to the situation. We recommend keeping a stress journal. This can either be a physical book or a note in your phone. Every time you find yourself feeling stressed, write down the date, the preceding event and how you reacted. That way, you'll get a better understanding of what triggers your body to become stressed as well as the symptoms that come along with it. That way you can link your symptoms directly to stress and work towards treating them.
“Once you know what causes you to be stressed and the way your body reacts, treating and managing the symptoms becomes much easier.”
Your Doctor, adds, “If you record every day how you are feeling and what happened during the day it may clarify which situations are causing you distress.
“Sometimes it isn’t instantly obvious about what makes us feel stressed or anxious so this may be a good way to reveal how we can take steps to reduce the stress in our life.”
It is always nice to help people out, whether it is helping work colleagues or family and friends, but sometimes you can take on too much and this can affect your mental health.
Your Doctor say that it is really important that you start saying no, “Much of the stresses we have in our life are caused by too many responsibilities. Start saying ‘no’ to requests that are asking too much of you. You’d be surprised how much more ‘me’ time you will have just by doing this simple exercise.”
There are a great deal of benefits to be gained by going out and getting some fresh air. By going for a walk you can burn fat and mentally it can actually improve memory and academic performance.
For those of you with busy lives you could get off public transport a couple of stops before the office and walk the rest of the way or even park your car further away so you get some fresh air before work. If you are having a stressful day, then you should nip out and go for a brief walk.
Your Doctor explains why getting some fresh air can help relieve stress, “The Vitamin D boost you get from sunlight increases the production of serotonin in your body which will help you feel happy and lift your spirits.”
Your Doctor’s experts say that by visualising feeling calm can help you de-stress.
“Find a quiet space where you can sit down and focus on your breathing, your mood and yourself. Your body produces less of the stress hormone cortisol when your mind is involved in guided imagery.”
There are a number of visualisation techniques you can use to help you relax anytime. You can imagine you are in an outdoor place or somewhere you’ve been on holiday to help you unwind.
While you are visualising this “happy place” you can focus on colours, shapes, sounds or smells. You can even give this place a name so that you can use it to bring back the image anytime you are feeling stressed.
It might seem strange to suggest that you talk to yourself, but it is something we all do and it really can help you to relax.
Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa and Dr Peter Petrie, add, “Talk to yourself the way you talk to your friends when you are trying to help them. We have a horrible habit of talking to ourselves in a negative way which can causes stress, depression and anxiety. Start positive self-talk and tell yourself why you’re worth it.”
If you really are feeling overwhelmed by stress, then you should book an appointment to discuss your feelings with a fully-registered GP.
They will be able to help you through your anxiety and can suggest even more ways to help you relax.