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The Hidden Signs of Stress (and What to Do When They Appear)

07 April 2022

Stress is one emotion that we can never fully escape from and one which comes in many shapes and sizes.

While it can be difficult to measure stress and the effect it has on the body, most signs point to it being an enormous problem that is continuing to grow rapidly. Last year may not have been your typical year, but 74% of adults in the UK said they felt so stressed at some point during the year that they felt overwhelmed and unable to cope.

Chronic stress is when a person experiences sustained periods of stress, which have devastating effects, such as anxiety, burnout, depression, and substance use disorders. It can also have a huge impact on businesses also, with an estimated 19 million working hours lost each year to chronic stress.

It’s clear that stress is something that we need to keep an eye out for and finding it and dealing with it early is paramount. Here are 5 signs of hidden stress and what you can do if you see them.

Irregular sleeping

Sleeping is one of the most important things we do - so important in fact, we spend about a third of our lives doing it.

When sleep works well, you awake after a 7-8 hour slumber feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day. However, when sleeping becomes irregular, it can cause havoc on the body.

This is one activity that you can certainly do too much of and too little. If you’re sleeping for over ten hours at the weekend, this could be a sign that the body is experiencing significant stress throughout the week and it’s always best to try and maintain a similar sleep pattern for the whole week. That’s not to say that the alarm needs to go off at 6 am on a Saturday morning, but equally, it’s probably detrimental to still be sleeping at midday.

A lack of sleep, either through insomnia or circumstances where you aren’t able to get 7-8 hours of sleep, is a clear indicator that something is off. Returning from the office at 11 pm and going straight to bed before rising again at 6 am is unsustainable and damaging to the body and the mind.  

Destructive behaviour

Sadly, some of the most well-loved pastimes are also some of the most destructive when done in extremes. Food, alcohol, and drugs are just three of the most common ways that people sometimes subconsciously attempt to deal with stress.

And there’s nothing wrong with sitting down with a beer at the end of a long hard day or enjoying the occasional slice of cake, but it’s when these become coping mechanisms for chronic stress that the real problems arise.

Alcoholism, drug abuse, and overeating can have a catastrophic effect on the human body, and when you’re severely stressed and not thinking clearly, it can be easy to get sucked in.    

Lack of energy

Fatigue is another clear indication of stress. This may be because you aren’t sleeping well but it’s also not uncommon for people to sleep for ten hours and still feel tired after they wake. Our bodies are wonderfully complex, but it’s important that we pay close attention to them. After all, they are finely tuned machines, prone to the occasional breakage.

There are a few ways that you can boost your energy, none of which are particularly groundbreaking. Exercising, eating well, and making sure you’re drinking plenty of water are three of the most important aspects to remember. If you’re doing all of them, and still feel drained throughout the day, it’s likely there may be an underlying cause.    

Disorganisation & Confusion

All of us experience those days when we just don’t quite feel ‘on the ball’. For whatever reason, we feel distracted and it’s as if the mind just refuses to cooperate. We aren’t robots and there are numerous reasons why we might not feel completely with it, but the real issue arises when the situation begins repeating itself.

When a person who had previously been organised and focused goes through a sustained period of disorganisation and confusion, chronic stress may well be the cause. Our brains are capable of doing millions of things every day, but modern life has become dramatically more complicated in the last 50-100 years.

We try to juggle everything at once and when it works, it’s a great show, but when it doesn’t, those balls begin to hit the ground.

Overproductivity  

Our final point is probably the least obvious and can even be disguised as a positive. Somebody working at a million miles an hour will often receive praise for their incredible productivity, but it might not all be good news.

Over productivity can sometimes be a sign that somebody is trying to suppress their emotional distress by working flat out as a way of masking what’s really going on. There’s certainly something to be said about getting on with something and not fixating on a problem, but also you shouldn’t fill every waking hour with frantic work just so you don’t need to confront your stress or anxiety.    

In the long run, over productivity is never going to work, and will probably just lead to burnout when you finally hit the wall and can go no further.