April is National Stress Awareness Month–but you probably didn’t need the official permission to become aware that you’re overworked. In fact, 65% of professionals blame their workplace as a constant source of angst, according to the American Institute of Stress. Though you know the feeling all too well, your body actually shows signs of stress, too. From how you physically react to intense conversations to the function of your mind and the beat of your heart, when you aren’t finding enough zen, it’ll show. Here, medical professionals reveal these signals of stress–and share the most effective ways to manage and move forward:
You’re tired in the morning but unable to fall asleep at night.
The cofounder and chief medical adviser of Nutrafol, Dr. Sophia Kogan, explains that when our adrenals are in overstimulation mode thanks to chronic, prolonged stress our cortisol levels become imbalanced. What does that mean? When you have a manageable schedule that includes enough sleep and mental breaks, you’ll feel energetic when you first wake up in the morning, and at nighttime those cortisol levels will be low, and you’ll be able to fall asleep easily. “Often the pattern is reversed with chronic stress, where [cortisol levels] are lowest in the morning and then rise at night. This can make us tired in the morning, wired during the day, and tired by night when you want to go to sleep, but can’t,” she explains. Often when this happens, our body craves all of those goodies that actually aren’t great for us–a Starbucks drive-by, “just one” cookie at the local bakery–in the middle of the afternoon. When you give in to this temptation, Kogan says you’ll feel burnt out and fatigued, and yet still unable to sleep.
To help get your internal rhythm back on track, Kogan suggests practicing smart, consistent sleep hygiene by going to bed at the same time every night and waking in the morning like clockwork, too. Though it will be difficult at first, ease yourself into an earlier bedtime in 15 minute increments to make it more digestible. She also recommends yoga or meditation to rebalance stress and cortisol levels, since it teaches you how to be in control of your mental processes.
You have a “nervous” stomach
That feeling that your stomach is in knots happens because when stress is highly emotional, bad bacteria will find it easier to fester than good bacteria, creating an unhealthy microbiome within your organs. Kogan adds that stress can threaten your gut’s permeability, creating a pathway for toxins to pass through, and thus, igniting inflammation. When this happens, you’ll see lots of physical transformations including digestion difficulties, inflamed pores and acne breakouts, irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, and more.
To recover from this, Kogan recommended dietary modifications as a smart place to start. Since we crave sugar and caffeine when we’re under pressure, we often have processed foods and other foods that don’t offer nutritional value. “Consumption of whole, nutrient dense foods will inevitably improve the microbiome. Extra support from good probiotics and digestive enzymes can ensure that the gut stays healthy and nutrients are properly digested for absorption–in the light of stress,” she adds.
Your heart is in panic mode
Or as you’ve often heard it: fight or flight mode. Georgia Witkin, author of The Female Stress Syndrome, says when our sense of choice, control or predictability goes down, our stress goes up. This makes everything from our muscles, brain, heart, and blood vessels to our liver, kidneys, sweat glands, and digestive system on high alert. “Fight-or-flight hormones are released to increase blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration, all of which are meant for short-term emergencies,” she says. Then, as our adrenaline levels climb, our heart can spasm, miss beats or pound, and Witkin says we experience the three H’s: hyperventilation, hyperactivity, or hypervigilance.
So how do we calm down? She suggests activating the concept of a “pause.” This short period of zen should last 20 minutes a day, and can be broken up into two sessions, four, or however you want to slice it. You don’t have to sit mindlessly breathing during this time either–but rather, do something to disengage your mind and allow you to reconnect to joy. “Everything works: you can read, meditate, sing, pray, do yoga, be mindful, play cards or Words with Friends, read funny emails, watch a comedy, laugh, or get a back massage,” she continues. “The trick is to give yourself permission for a time out during a stressful situation.”
Your mind is scattered
Even though you prepared for presentation with a major client, read over your notes for hours and felt ready to blow them away–when the time came, you couldn’t put words together. Neuropsychologist Amy Serin says when we feel incredibly stressed, we won’t be able to access memories or information. And, our minds will have difficulty focusing, no matter how much we have studied for an event. This is because our body goes into a state of anxiety, jeopardizing all functions that aren’t necessary for immediate survival to shut down. The same brain network, called the salience network, all chooses what you’re able to pay attention to and when. So while you want to be giving 100% attention to your project, you can’t help but become distracted by anything and everything else. “If your salience network hasn’t already done it for you, conscious attempts to tune out sounds and smells become harder and if you’re in a state of anxiety you’re way more likely to be annoyed by things you normally could tune out,” she explains.
To help these symptoms, she suggests using a meditation app that’ll teach deep breathing techniques. These short bursts of mindless, yet conscious relaxation will come in handy the next time you can’t process something at work. It’s also important to surround yourself with positive people, so phone a friend when you need it to walk through your angst. Or, go for a walk where the fresh air can clear your head–and lower your trepidation.