At least once every year, I develop an unforgiving cough and congestion so bad I have trouble hearing. Each time, as I burrow under my favorite blanket and clutch onto Sudafed and Mucinex for dear life, I wonder: Why again? And why always when I have fun weekend plans? It doesn’t take me long to realize—I’m burnt out. True to form, I’ve agreed to too many responsibilities and side gigs on top of my fulltime job, and my body is not happy.
I know I’m not alone. As a reporting and evaluation manager for an employee wellness company, one of my responsibilities is to identify and analyze top health risks for the thousands of individuals our programs serve. And usually, stress ends up in the top three (out of 15).
While it’s true that a little can be good for you, the consistent presence of it is not. “Chronic stress, of course, has been shown over and over to be a bad thing for body and brain,” says Alice G. Walton, a Forbes science and health writer. “It actually seems to suppress the generation of new nerve cells and inhibit memory, not to mention increase one’s risk for being overweight; developing heart disease and possibly cancer; developing addictions; and experiencing depression, anxiety, and sleep problems.”
Well, that sounds exciting (read: horrifying). But minimizing levels of it is easier said than done, as it can be difficult to notice when you’re overdoing it—most likely because you’re so busy you can’t keep tabs on how you’re feeling.
But if you identify with any of the following five signs, it may be time to take a step back.
1. You’re Snapping at Everyone (for No Good Reason)
When your co-worker poses a simple question—“Hey, can you proofread this memo for me?”—and you act like she asked you to read the employee handbook to her. You huff and puff and silently wonder why she’s so very stupid. Instead of calmly responding with a “Sure” or “Give me a few seconds to wrap this up,” you answer with venom-laced words: “Um, I’m kinda busy right now, but sure, whatever.”
Later on, you realize you severely overreacted, and the embarrassment sets in. Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University’s business school, explains that a lot of people have no idea they’re being rude to others. And it’s probably “because they're so stressed and overwhelmed that they don't have the mental bandwidth to consider other people's hurt feelings.” (But just because you’re not the only drama queen doesn’t give you the excuse to be Cruella.)
2. You’re Thinking About Work All the Time
Your hours may be nine to five, but your mind is occupied with work 24/7. During your commute, while eating dinner, when you’re trying to fall asleep, in your dreams—you know the drill. It’s the sole topic of conversation when talking with friends and family, and the only thing you can think about when you’re pretending to listen to them (smile, nod, smile, nod).
I’m not saying you should limit every thought about it to specific days and times—you’re not a robot (if you are, though, no judgment here). But as Adrian Granzella Larssen, Editor-in Chief of The Daily Muse says, “bringing too much work home—even if that work is just rolling around in your head—can quickly make you an anxious, sleep-deprived, pretty boring dinner guest.” And no one wants that!
3. You Can’t Focus Enough to Actually Be Productive
It’s time to get down to it, but you just can’t seem to make any progress (or even get started). Countless thoughts are bouncing around inside your head at lightning speed, and you have no idea how to control them. And so begins the vicious cycle—you’re overwhelmed because you’ve got a lot to do, but you’re fretting about it so much that you can’t accomplish anything.
You can blame this frustrating situation on your body’s response to regular anxiety, which is really helpful when you need survival mode to kick in, but not so helpful when it’s impairing your concentration.
4. You Aren’t Sleeping Well (or at All)
You’re exhausted at the end of the day, but when you finally retire for the night, you spend hours staring at the ceiling. At last, you drift off (hopefully), but you toss and turn all night. When you wake up the next morning, you’re just as tired as you were before.
“When we’re stressed,” says Lindsay Holmes, Deputy Healthy Living Editor for The Huffington Post, “our minds race with thoughts instead of shutting down at night, inhibiting important functions involved in memory, muscle repair, and mood (yikes).”
It gets worse, says Holmes. It can also lead to persistent insomnia and a malfunctioning immune system (which explains that nagging cold I get each year). Weird dreams are also a common symptom—such as that time my subconscious explored the ins and outs of PowerPoint, which was super riveting and enlightening.
5. Your Entire Body Feels Sore
When there’s too much tension in your mind, it’ll manifest itself in your body in several ways, as well—pain and stiffness in your back, neck, hips, and shoulders; headaches; a clenched jaw; and more.
“When the brain senses a threat, it activates the sympathetic nervous system and signals the adrenal glands to pump out adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones that prime the body for action,” shares Melinda Beck, a health contributor for The Wall Street Journal. “Together, they make the muscles tense up, the digestive tract slow down, blood vessels constrict, and the heart beats faster.”
And when your body has this reaction unnecessarily—like to an overflowing inbox rather than to a saber tooth tiger—your muscles will remain contracted for a prolonged period of time (hence all those knots in your upper back).
Listen—you can’t avoid feeling this way all the time. It’s part of life, and sometimes very important. But when it’s long-term, the effects can be harmful. So, while you can’t eliminate it completely, you can prevent it from spinning out of control and taking over your life. The first step? Being aware of your behavior and how you feel.
And then, figure out the best way to manage your to-do list, remember to take (frequent) breaks, disconnect fully on a regular basis, and when you need to—ask for help. Learning how to successfully manage stress is key to a happy and healthy life. So, go on, conquer it! It’ll pay off big time.