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What Are the Common Signs of Stress? Fight or Flight Explained

Everyone experiences stress in their life — it plays an important psychological and biological reaction to a new, taxing, or dangerous situation. While most people wouldn’t complain if they never felt it again, there are some positive aspects. For example, stress is what allows you to escape or defend yourself from threats. It can also encourage you to prepare for an important task or get excited about a new experience, such as going on a first date or traveling abroad.

But feeling extreme panic about everyday activities or living with chronic anxiety that impacts your day-to-day life can be debilitating. It can also have a negative impact on your physical health, causing issues like migraines, stomach pain, weight gain, and inflammation, and on your mental health, contributing to conditions like depression or generalized anxiety disorder.

If stress and anxiety are overtaking your life, meeting with a therapist can help. No matter the source, our providers in Needham, Norwell, and Hanover can help people from diverse backgrounds understand how anxiety affects every aspect of their life and explore effective methods for managing stress. We offer several behavioral health services to aid in this process, including:

  • Medication management
  • Individual, couples, and group therapy
  • Psychological testing
  • Family therapy and parent coaching
  • Group therapy

While it may feel like your stress is never ending, there is hope! Continue reading to learn the common warning signs and discover how you can gain control of your life again.

Need help managing stress? Schedule an appointment today.

What Causes Stress?

Stress is your body’s normal response to a perceived threat. It causes a chemical reaction in the body, signaling it to produce several hormones that prepare the body to quickly react, and even prevent pain, to survive a dangerous situation. This process is called the fight-or-flight response, and it urges your mind and body to either flee a perceived hazard or to fight it.

What Happens to Your Body During the Fight-or-Flight Response?

The fight-or-flight response begins with the sympathetic nervous system and in turn activates the adrenal glands, causing a flood of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Together these hormones will cause an energy boost, dilate your pupils, sharpen your hearing, increase your heart rate, decrease pain perception, alter memory retention, and tense your muscles. Other bodily functions, such as tissue repair and digestion, are slowed. When experiencing acute symptoms or panic, the body should return to normal functioning about 30 minutes after the perceived threat has passed.

What Are the Signs of Chronic Stress?

While the fight-or-flight response makes sense in a potentially dangerous situation, people do not only experience this chemical response when in actual danger. Rather, the fight-or-flight response is triggered any time the body feels stressed. For many people, this means feeling on edge before a big exam, after dealing with conflict, when speaking in front of a group of people, or dealing with a heavy workload.

When triggered consistently by everyday situations, people can experience chronic stress. This can put your body in a prolonged fight-or-flight state, exposing you to high cortisol levels that negatively affect both your physical and mental health. Common symptoms to look out for include:

  • Headaches
  • Weight gain (especially in the face, midsection, and upper back)
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Slow healing and frequent illness
  • Muscle weakness and pain
  • Difficulty concentrating or relaxing
  • Low self-esteem or depression
  • Digestion issues
  • Insomnia
  • Low libido
  • Teeth grinding
  • Changes in menstrual cycle

How Can You Effectively Manage Stress?

From having trouble getting sleep at night to experiencing chronic pain and stomach issues, stress can feel unmanageable. However, working with a behavioral health provider and employing specific techniques can help you return to a healthier mindset. While no one lives a completely stress-free life, knowing how to be proactive in recognizing and addressing stress can help you improve your day-to-day life and reduce debilitating symptoms.

1. Identify Your Stressors

The more you can identify what events and situations trigger stress in your life the better you will be able to prevent stress or tackle it when it occurs. For some people, their work can be a major contributor, especially if a poor work-life balance is at play. Frequently experiencing money issues, a difficult relationship, an illness, or less-than-ideal living conditions can also be sources of constant stress.

Anxiety about specific events, such as fear of driving, heights, strangers, or being alone, can also place the body under stress. Post-traumatic stress disorder causes chronic stress following a traumatic event. A therapist can help you learn if may have a specific condition contributing to your stress.

While you may not know yet how to stop stressing about your work or don’t yet see a clear path to working through severe anxiety, the first step to developing a plan is knowing what trigger, or triggers, are contributing to your symptoms. It can help to keep a journal to document times where a certain situation caused stress or anxiety.

2. Know Your Symptoms

While it can help to have a general overview of the symptoms stress may cause, everyone responds in their own way. In your journal, also take note any physical, emotional, or psychological symptoms you may notice when you’re under stress. For instance, you may identify that you are often irritable when stressed and easily angered by others. You may also find that you are restless when anxious and unable to focus on important tasks.

Note any changes in sleeping or eating patterns, and pay attention to how your body feels. Are you experiencing more headaches that normal? Does your jaw feel tight and uncomfortable? Have you noticed any nausea or digestive issues? This will help you know when to change something.

3. Recognize Your Coping Methods

When people experience stress, they often rely on the same coping-mechanisms to deal with the unpleasant feelings it brings. Coping methods can be healthy and unhealthy, and they are often learned by habit and positive reinforcement. If something helped distract you from stress in the past, even if only temporarily, it’s likely you will want to use that method again when you have similar feelings.

Reflecting on your past and paying attention to how you react to stress in your daily life can give you a good idea of the coping mechanisms you often use. You’ll also want to identify if these strategies are healthy or unhealthy.

For instance, turning to alcohol, taking your stress out on your loved ones, or overeating are all activities that might make you feel better for the moment, but they will have negative consequences in the long run. Oversleeping, withdrawing from others, or procrastinating important tasks can also lead to negative outcomes. On the other hand, healthy coping strategies have good, long-term effects in your life. Exercising, meditating, seeking support from loved ones, or talking to a professional about what you’re experiencing are all examples of beneficial coping mechanics.

4. Create a Stress-Management Plan

Now that you have a better idea of what is causing you stress, how your stress if affecting you, and which methods you are currently using to cope, you can better come up with effective, heathy ways to manage your stress.

Where possible, limit or alter stressors in your life. Identify areas that you have control over and consider action items you can work on to decrease stress. This can include creating a more balanced schedule that allows you to spend time with loved ones or do something you enjoy. If your finances are a major source of stress, consider making a budget and speaking with a financial advisor if you haven’t already.

But when an event does trigger stress, don’t wait to deal with the negative feelings. As soon as you get any symptoms, identify a healthy coping mechanism you can use. This can mean taking a break from work, if possible, to go on a walk or calling a friend to talk through what you’re feeling. For stress or anxiety that feels overwhelming, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional to continue working with you through the process.

Ready to start making changes? Contact our office today.