Do you know that 110 million people die every year as a direct result of stress? That is 7 people every 2 seconds. This statistical data was reported the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So why are people so stressed out? Let’s take a look! An Uber software engineer who made six-figure income killed himself in 2016 due to workplace stress. A 21-year-old Merrill Lynch intern collapsed and died in London after working 72 hours straight. Yep, we all remember that one.
It always made me so sad to see someone died so senselessly. I don’t have to look far. Take short stroll around Toronto Financial District (aka: where the rat race begins) and I see a lot of people who have the “I am so burn-out” look racing back and forth in the paths connecting the financial office buildings. Well, I was one of those people.
Both Karen and I experienced stress and burned out at some point in the last few years. Karen is a special case. She is constantly in the stress mode because she has been chasing one goal after another since the day she was born. The first born and their drive to success at all cost. Give it a rest, Karen! But I never thought that I would experience work burn-out but it happened to me.
Yep, I was diagnosed with mild depression resulting from stress. Yep, stress leads to depression and that’s not fun. Believe me! When I was diagnosed with depression, I was in total denial. It took me weeks to accept the hard reality. Well, that and I was crying a lot. Also signs of stress and depression that I totally missed out on.
Now you may ask: how would a single Gemini, carefree, free-spirit gypsy world-traveler like me end up with work stress? Well, I had a Devil wear Panda boss for a long…long time. She wasn’t beautiful or well-dress like Meryl Street. But she was definitely meaner, has zero empathy, no emotional intelligent and jealous as a hell cat. Oh, yes, she had all brand-name stuffs but she had no sense of style hence the name Panda.
It wasn’t all bad when I started working for her, then I was promoted and groomed by my VP, that was when she turned into a nightmare. Jealousy wears Panda shaded of green and black, I tell ya. Seriously, I thought woman should support and help out other woman, but she didn’t. Don’t get me start talking about this because I don’t know when I can end, and I digress.
Stressed out from working for the manic Devil wears Panda boss, I felt like my body and minds were constantly drained from suppressing my emotions and unhappiness. So, I got help from a life coach and therapist to help me deal with my situation and got back to being emotionally and physically happy again. As I dived into this subject to get a better understanding and found my path to happiness, I learn that many people share my experience and pains. The top stressors on most of people’s lists are: work, school, family, relationship, money, commuting and lack of time for themselves.
Yes, most of us think of stress as immediate everyday problems: the boss hovering over our desks, a break up with a cute boy, the crowded subway ride or in case of Karen, her precious mini me is unwell. In the short-term, stress makes us feel irritable, anxious, tense, distracted and forgetful. In long term stress can chip away at our physical, mental and emotional health.
The link between chronic stress and the potential for mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders is well-known. So let’s dive in and get a better understanding of stress and what are the earl warning signs. It will be a long discussion (I warn you), but I think it is worth your time and effort to get a better understanding of this important topic.
What exactly is stress?
Well, stress is an instant physical response when your body thinks it is under attack. The human body is still conditioned to react as though we still live in cave and have to defense against wild beasts. When we are under stress, our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode and releasing a mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. Our hearts will start to pound fast and furious. Then come the heavy breathing, and a boost of energy which in turn focus the body energy to respond to the situation.
See, this reaction is very useful when a wild and scary lion is charging toward you but in modern day environments (say work related or personal stress), this physical reaction is a dead trap waiting to happen if you experience it constantly. Imagine your body goes through this reaction every time and immediately when you are under stress. All that adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine pumping through your body continuously will wear you down mentally and then physically.
Our built-in caveman/woman instinct that helped us surviving predators and thrived in the Stone Age is now killing us in the modern age. Chronic stress can lead to health issues such as: increase in sugar and blood pressure levels due to release of cortisol, and a decrease in libido. It is not good news, I tell you.
How does stress affect your body?
Stress can affect your body, your thoughts, behaviour, action and feelings. There are signs that you are under stress. So look out for these early warning signs and symptoms.
The knots on your back, neck and shoulder
When your mind senses danger, your body muscles will naturally tighten up and then it gets ready for the release of adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine hormone. The neck and back muscles are the area on your body that most likely tense up and get the blunt of the stress.
Shoulders are where my stress built up. When I was stressed out, my shoulder and neck muscles would tense up to a point where I couldn’t even more my neck. Then I would beg my massage therapist to fit me into her schedule for a rescue session or made my way to my fall back (aka: Karen). Karen is free of charge but she has death hands. Seriously, she can break my neck. Those hands can break any muscles but they really hurt! Now, you can have neck and back pain from other causes, but if you consistently have the same ache and pain in neck, back and shoulder, it is a good idea to assess and see if you experience stress.
Constant headache and migraine
The other leading indicator of stress is headache which cause by tensions in your muscles or mind. If you experience prolong and consistent headache or migraine to a point where you can’t sleep at night, it is a sure sign that you are stressed out. Looking back, I started to experience migraine consistently about 3 years ago but I chalked it up to body fatigue. I should realize that it was stress, but I didn’t have the self-awareness and knowledge to know better.
Can’t kill the cold and flu bugs
Researches have shown that stress reduces body’s immunity by limiting inflammation. The danger is your body will get use to this level of cortisol over time and then it can’t fight off the bacteria. You can see where this will lead right? When you have a peaceful state of mind and having good immunity, you can fight off the nasty cold and flu bugs more effectively. When your body defense armor is down due to stress which impacts your immunity defense, your body is weaker and can’t fight off the bugs.
So when you get a cold that lasted for weeks and healing is nowhere in sign, I encourage you to take a step back and ask yourself that important question: Am I under too much stress?
Focus and attention span of a 5 year old
“You have the concentration and focus of 5 years old”. Karen told me this couple of times but I shrugged it off as one of her nagging. In the past years, it was getting harder for me to focus. I would start a task, and then I would be distracted by other stuffs and wasted hours of valuable time. In addition, my short term memory went down the drain. I had a tough time recalling recent facts but I didn’t think much of it.
Apparently, there is a scientific explanation for this. Research has connected long-term exposure to excess amounts of cortisol which shrinks of the brain’s memory center and production of protein that causes Alzheimer. I literally wanted to kick my own ass when I came across this piece of information. All the warning signs were in front of my eyes, but I kept ignoring them.
5. Say good bye to your hair
Ladies, listen to this carefully. It is common for us to lose couple strands of hairs, but if your hair fall out in clumps then it is a different story. It is not normal. This is the sign that your body is telling you that you are experiencing telogen effluvium, trichotillomani or alopecia areata. Simplify put, your body immune is attacking your hair follicle. And your hair follicle is losing the battle big time.
10 to 15 strands of hair fall out are normal, but hairs falling out in clumps would be the warning sign for you to see a doctor and have a long chat about your mental state.
6. The expanding waistline and muffin top
When I experienced stress, my muffin top was big. Well, ginormous was the term that my niece described it. The little chipmunk was sure honest. The kicker was I didn’t even eat much during stressful time because I didn’t have much appetite. No matter how little I ate, my waistline and muffin top kept on expanding. Do you experience this too? You can try all sorts of diets, but your middle section stubbornly expands as though it wants to challenge you.
The reason is stress causes your body to release high levels of cortisol into your veins. Cortisol causes higher insulin level in your body which resulted in lowering of your blood sugar. This reaction causes your body to crave sugary and comfort food.
It is not a coincidence that ice cream is the much beloved food when people are under stressed. I am also one of those people. Deserts, wines, noodles and dumplings were my staple during stressful time. I even binged on KFC and then dug up Italian tartufo for more relief. Most of my female friends are in the same boat, the more upset we are, the friendlier the ice-cream shop owner seem to be. Something about the sugar that seems to temporary soothe the pains. But it was just that, a temporary and brief relief.
To add more bad news, your body is also in instant fight or flight mode due to stress so naturally your survival instinct will kick in. To protect and prepare itself for survival, your body will store more fat instead of burning it. Yep, double whammies.
No restful night
Our body is built and condition for night sleep. So, when you can’t seem to get any sleep at night, it is a warning indicator that your state of mind is less than ideal. When your mind is constantly turmoil and working overtime to resolve issues, your body won’t get any rest. At one point, I had less than 5 hours of sleep per night and then I ended up worrying so much about my lack of sleep that I couldn’t fall asleep. It was a vicious cycle. Without sleep and time for your body to heal and recharge from daily activities, you will experience a number of physical and mental health issues as a result.
8. Fatigue in the morning
Do you get up in the morning feeling worse than you feel at night? If your body didn’t get any sleep to recharge and heal, then it is no wonder that you feel fatigue and has no energy in day time. When your body has to work overtime to handle the stressors, and yet it starts to store fat instead of burning it, your body ends up with no fuse to keep going. As a result, you will feel sluggish, no energy and drained. This physical and mental state will make you more irritable and prone to outburst.
Karen got quite a few tongue-lashings from me when I was at my low points. Looking back, I truly regretted not seeing the writing on the wall and got the help I needed immediately. Luckily, my family understand and forgive me. That’s why I feel so strongly about sharing my experience and hope that I can help you to get help before too late.
9. The matter of the heart and chest
It is all about hormones. The release of the hormones (cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline) due to stress will cause a short-term increase in heart rate and blood pressure or chest pain. In short-term, this may not be life threatening to you but long term exposure to this condition will take a toll on the heart. It can lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol as a result. In worst case, it can lead to unhealthy habits like smoking, physical inactivity, and over-eating which also causes heart disease.
A higher level of cortisol pumping in our body can cause cystic acne. I used to have bad case of acne in my early year (insert the link for the article 10 yr food journey), but I got rid of acne with healthy eating and Korean skincare over the year. But when I was under stress, my face would break out like a pepperoni pizza. Well, maybe it was not that bad but I really dislike acne skin. I have worked so hard and made a lot of changes to my diet and skincare to have healthy skin. Yet, stress brought the ugly acne right back. I tried so many products and drank lot of water but the nightmare acne won’t go away. But once I was destressed, my skin cleared out.
There are other signs but these 10 are the most common ones. Take it from someone who have been through a lot of stress to the point of mild depression, it is not a journey you will enjoy. So stay connected to your body and mind. Listen and see the warning signs that your body and mind are telling you and seek professional help immediately. Don’t wait because you will regret it! Share with me your experience about stress and warning signs that you know of. I truly believe that if we can talk about this and share our journey, we can help others to get well sooner. I can’t wait to hear from you.