Not until I went through burnout did I know there was a thing such as ‘stress creep’. That’s the nature of chronic stress and burnout in many cases; it literally sneaks up on you. It can happen so subtly over time that it’s not until you hit the wall, or experience a few symptoms that precede hitting the wall such as sleeplessness, mental fogginess or fatigue that you might start to notice just how bad your stress levels have got. That makes it tricky to pick up on, particularly because it tends to happen over the course of many busy days, busy weeks, busy months. Then another few months go by and you might be feeling more tired than usual, or you may go through a winter with a few more colds or flu’s than is typical for you – usually signalling lower immunity – and then one day it really dawns. It can truly be a wake up call.
For me it was the flu four times in four months and then glandular fever. BAM. I hit the ball. In bed. Couldn’t work. It was quite shocking. For others it is the onset of panic attacks or chest pains that feel like a heart attack, or the ‘mental check-out’ which is usually the day someone decides they actually can’t get out of bed and go to work. I believe in all cases it is the body shouting at us to STOP.
I don’t believe that every person who gets stressed is a candidate for burnout. We all have different levels of resilience to various stressors and will be affected differently – emotionally, mentally and physically. What’s important is to know yourself, to be aware of your own limits and what you need to be well and happy, and to catch any unhelpful stress cycles as soon as possible.
Ideally we want to minimise stress creep and to not just get by or survive stressful periods at work or in life such as mixing work, study and kids all at once, but to be really well.
Here are 7 signs to look out for that could signal some ‘stress creep’ or that chronic stress could be setting in …
1. Getting stressed more easily or more often
This is going to sound really obvious, but this can be the most subtle sign of all (at least to ourselves – sometimes others see it sooner than we do). If you notice you are flicking into the stress response more easily or more often, this is often the first and most clear sign of stress creep. It typically happens in two ways – in small ways over a long period of time, or after an acute high-stress experience like a hyper busy period at work, an accident or a health event such as you or someone close to you receiving a cancer diagnosis. Yale university research shows that once you’ve had a high stress event, you may be more susceptible to being stressed again because the brain tends to activate the stress response more readily. At work this often shows up where once upon a time leading a meeting, dealing with your inbox or liaising with a tricky client was not an issue for you, but then it does become an issue. You may find yourself getting more stressed or anxious before or during that situation, and it happens more frequently and readily. This is often referred to as cumulative stress.
While we can all have the odd brain-fart and forget something or fail to get a word out that’s on the tip of our tongue, brain-fry is when that’s happening more and more regularly. It could include feeling foggy-headed and like there’s no room in there for any new information. I remember feeling like my brain was made of mashed potato. Perhaps you have regular brain-freeze and are unable to recall information. It can be difficult stringing together a sentence you have floating inside your mind like a slippery eel in dark water – you know it’s there but you can’t get a handle on it.
3. Here but not ‘all there’
Similar to # 2 but not the same, this is about not being present and in the moment. Being frequently stressed generally means the body is constantly getting ready to fight or fly. It’s not so interested in sitting quietly and taking in what someone is saying. This can make it difficult to do just that – whether it’s in a presentation, a meeting or a simple conversation with someone. This can add anxiety because not only is it not easy to concentrate and hear and process what is being said, we’re usually then not able to respond coherently and articulately; a horrible cycle to get caught in. Use your breath in these moments to come back into your body properly and ground: breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth with several long, slow breaths from the belly.
4. Lowered immunity
Our body is constantly talking to us and giving us signals about our wellness – or un-wellness. If we’re smart, we listen. While these symptoms can also have other causes, look out for these signs of weakening immunity – a common result of stress creep: recurring colds, flus, allergies, aching joints, tiredness/fatigue, weight loss or gain, hair loss, injuries slow to heal and digestive problems including food intolerances, IBS, etc. Support your immunity by getting enough quality sleep, drinking plenty of water, eating plenty of fresh vegetables and avoiding sugar (if you haven’t already encountered the excellent books and films on sugar yet, not doubt you will. Among other things, sugar supresses the immune system. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating 100g of sugar significantly hampered the ability of white blood cells to kill bacteria (a process called neutrophilic phagocytosis) for up to five hours afterward.)
Being tired all the time and finding that a few early nights doesn’t help you get on top of it, is often a sign of chronic stress. It can also signal other health issues and should be attended to as soon as possible because sometimes the longer it is left, the longer it can take to recover. If you work in an office it can be hard to deal with this, but if at all possible, have a nap. You can fight it all you like, but if you need a nap, you need a nap. You’ll function much better if you do because you’re not adding more stress to the body by pushing through, and your nervous system is likely to recover more quickly overall.
6. Wired but Tired
‘Stress creep’ can often result in the nervous system being in sympathetic dominance. The body essentially gets ‘stuck’ in the flight-flight response and this makes it hard to unwind in the evenings and be in parasympathetic mode – the rest and digest mode that allows us to sleep deeply. This perpetuates a cycle of tiredness because you’re not getting the rest you need because you’re wired because your body is trying to cope with soldiering on instead of truly resting and replenishing. So, if this is you, aim to wind down earlier in the evenings so your body has more time to relax. Take warm baths, drink relaxing teas, do yoga or breathing practices, meditate, stay away from devices or stimulating television/film, etc by mid evening, and consider what your body needs to truly unwind.
7. A beer please
Another sign of stress creep is finding that the only way you can unwind after work is via a couple of beers or a cheeky glass or two of wine. This is what doctors and therapists call ‘self-medicating’. It’s an option, but there are plenty of alternatives that don’t have such unhelpful side effects: Burn off some cortisol (stress hormone) by moving your body and getting your heart rate up. Use the Mood Mover to shake off any stress still sitting in your body. Process any residual thoughts about work by spending 5 minutes writing down all your to-do’s for tomorrow, and then everything you achieved today – how nice it is to finish the day actually feeling connected to what you’ve achieved?
Taking a 20 minute work at the end of your work day is a good go-to. Grab someone from the office or home and go walk. If it means you’ll avoid some traffic and feel better for your drive home, walk before you leave.
When it comes to looking out for signs of stress creep in others, noticing changes in their behaviour can be useful. If someone who is usually quite easy going is snapping people’s heads off or sounding overly anxious about a new deadline, ponder it. Is someone who is normally quite light-hearted and funny tending to be more serious or having regular a sense-of-humour failure? These changes can occur because even the most easy going of us can actually just get fed up with the amount of change or challenge they’re dealing with, but it’s worth having their wellbeing in the back of your mind.