Stress manifests physically in the form of a variety of unpleasant sensations ranging from headaches, tension in the muscles, high blood pressure and irritable bowel movements to pain in the chest, insomnia and excess sweating (among other things). One of the things that make the body one of the smartest mechanisms in the universe is its ability not only to detect when something is going wrong but also to transmit this information to our consciousness through the presence of symptoms such as the ones mentioned above, as well as shed light on one’s internal psychological state.
We are accustomed to believing that stress comes from external sources in the environment, which is easy to understand when we examine the way in which we talk about things such as work pressure, strained relationships, major life changes or even an unfavourable immediate physical environment. But it is also common knowledge that people experience the same amount or sources of stress differently. This is because while stress can be a largely physical experience, our mind plays the largest role in deciding the matter of what is stressful, the degree to which we have the resources to handle it, how it is going to affect us and what we’re going to do about it. Therefore, it is at least partially how we see stress that decides what it’s going to feel like.
Whether there is an objective reality “out there” is a question that has plagued philosophers since time immemorial, but what is hard to argue is the considerable contribution that our perceptions play in shaping our reality. Subsequently, it is problematic to come up with a yardstick or objective standard to measure an experience that is so subjective; stress may be common and universal phenomena, but what makes it so challenging is the fact that it is intensely personal. This means that trying to understand how much stress is too much is not best measured by a scale, a survey or even a list of symptoms. It is your own experience that gives you all the clues to understand how much is too much for you.
Can you be stressed and not know it? How do you know it’s too much?
- When it affects you negatively. Everyone goes through stress as it is a natural and beneficial phenomenon; when working correctly, it is the stress response that allows you to work well under pressure. It becomes distressing when this mechanism is disrupted (is over-used or has become perpetual) and impairs your regular functioning as a result.
- When it spills over. The thing about stress is that it cannot really be compartmentalized. For instance, you may feel stressed as a result of work pressure, but its effects rarely stay confined to the workplace. More often than not, it permeates into spheres personal, professional and beyond.
- When it shows. Stress has a lot of tell-tale signs whether physical, cognitive or emotional that are hard to miss when you’re in tune with what you are going through. In fact, being mindful about your experience actually has the effect of reducing stress levels.
In essence, the best way to gauge when the stress is too much is to pay attention when your body objects, your thoughts niggle and you feel something’s just not right.
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