We all have it. After all, we’re all busy—facing changes, responsibilities, and problems we need to solve, and the reality is we will never be able to fully rid our lives of stress. Even the most zen among us haven’t actually learned to eliminate stress. Instead, they find balance and strength to cope with stress in healthy ways.
When we think of balance, most of us think about how we might evenly partition out sections of our lives. For example, we might try to evenly split up our home life, our church life, our work life, our school life—whatever pieces comprise our responsibilities and interests. We think of how we can evenly attend to each area and essentially keep all the balls we’re juggling in the air.
However, in practice, we usually can’t do it all. It’s almost impossible to evenly disperse ourselves or give each area equal attention and diligence. Sometimes we might need to skip out on one responsibility or give more attention to another. Life happens, and no matter how regimented our routine, the unexpected will always show up. The car will break down, we will get sick, a friend or loved one will face an issue or a loss, and we will need to cope.
The truth is that we’ll never find balance from trying to juggle all our balls, because balance comes from rest. It comes from taking the opportunity to do whatever renews our spirit and speaks to our heart. We can find rest and solace in time alone or in time with friends, or while in service to others or within our own “me time.” However you find your point of balance, it’s important to make it a priority.
Stress is one of those sneaky things that can creep up on us and have a profound and even devastating effect. It can wreak havoc on our health, our sleep rhythms, even our personality. It can spill over into our friendships and even cause us to distance ourselves from our loved ones. In our darkest and most stressful times, we may even distance ourselves from God.
Recognizing when it’s time to take a break is the key to finding balance. In my new book Unstuffed I share some very practical tips for how and when to set limits—and not just limits on tangible things, but limits on the stress and toxicity we allow into our lives.
Learn these signs of stress to help identify those moments when it’s time to give yourself some extra TLC.
1. Frequent Illness and Lowered Immune System
Maybe it’s not so surprising, but stress can have a profound effect on your health. When you’re in distress, it can be much more difficult for your body to heal from even simple injuries. Blood pressure rises, your heart rate increases, and when all this happens in combination with other side effects (like poor sleep and nutrition), you could be setting the stage for a perfect storm for serious, ongoing health issues.
I once spent over a year battling colds, bronchitis, urinary tract infections, and just generally feeling crummy. When I finally stepped back, I realized my illnesses were all a result of too much stress. I was taking on too many things and trying too hard to be “perfect” in every area of my life—the best mom, wife, Christian, teacher, blogger, friend….
Unfortunately, no one can be the absolute best at everything they do. Just remember, we’re naturally imperfect and at the mercy of God’s grace. It’s okay to let yourself off the hook for some of those too-high standards we set for ourselves. You don’t have to throw the perfect party every time or “pin” every craft and dinner to Pinterest. You don’t have to compare yourselves to everyone else on social media (who by the way, are also putting only their very best face forward)!
To combat sickness brought on by stress, practice all of the good, healthy-for-you things you know you should be doing. Get plenty of sleep, exercise, water, healthy foods and rest. Relax and take a break. If you don’t, your body will force you to take one whether you like it or not.
2. Skin and Hair Issues
Stress can cause hair loss, acne, dry skin and flare-ups of a number of skin conditions, including eczema and psoriasis. It makes sense, seeing as your skin is your largest organ, and it undergoes and absorbs much of the environmental toxins and stress surrounding you.
When your body’s immune system and defenses are down, your skin will be one of the first places it will show. You might first notice a certain dullness—a complexion that doesn’t seem as bright or looks grey. Even your hair might seem oilier, limp, thin, or just not as shiny and healthy.
Water, sleep and nutrition can be the best ways to combat skin and hair issues. Of course, if you feel you’re losing a large amount of hair, or if you can’t get skin issues under control, visit a dermatologist who can help you find a solution to flare-ups. These issues can be symptomatic of a thyroid disorder or other concern. Our skin can be susceptible to infection when we have rashes, acne and dry patches. It’s better to head them off quickly, before they become a much larger problem.
Make sure you’re eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which contain many of the vitamins (A, C, D, iron and protein) that help with hair growth and skin health.
3. Panic Attacks, Depression and Anxiety
Panic attacks and anxiety are very real and very frightening. If you have panic disorder, depression or anxiety, you may need to seek medical help. That said, stress can certainly exacerbate these issues and even cause them to spiral out of control.
As many of you know, I battled depression for several years. I know when my stress gets out of control, those feelings can start creeping back in. From a scientific point of view, stress causes your body to go into “fight or flight” mode, so the adrenalin and other hormones released can cause the rest of your brain chemistry to get a little out of whack. Suddenly, you may find yourself having panic attacks when you haven’t had one in years, or you might feel looming symptoms of depression.
Again, exercise, sleep, a healthy diet and meditation can help you keep these symptoms at bay. Taking care of yourself emotionally, physically and spiritually is so important when your mental health is on the line.
Cut back on caffeine and alcohol as these can increase feelings of instability. Talk about your feelings and write about them. Getting them out in the open can help keep them from overtaking you. Examine your life for any other causes such as allergy medicine, hormonal birth control and some blood pressure medications, which can also increase these feelings. Discuss any concerns you have with your doctor.
4. Withdrawal, Social Fears and Isolation
You may find yourself becoming less social when you’re under stress. If a too-full social calendar is part of the trigger, then cutting back is healthy and recommended. However, if you start hearing friends ask, “Where have you been?” you may want to do a little self-check. Are you cutting back because it’s increasing your stress, or are you isolating yourself and withdrawing because you’re too overwhelmed to cope?
It’s a fine line and a balance. One of the most important factors is the quality of your social time. If you leave your lunch date with a friend feeling emotionally lighter and happier, then make a point to make similar social activities priority. If you dread a party because you know you’ll leave feeling worse or it won’t elevate you emotionally or spiritually, then skip it.
Connecting with friends and loved ones helps us combat stress. We all need a sounding board—someone who can objectively listen to us. Keep your social circle filled with people who bring you up and connect with you on a deep level. Make time for friends—and if you know you’ll feel better after a social date, keep it!
5. Memory Loss and Inability to Concentrate
Stress can make us feel foggy and unclear, clouding our minds. Even though you feel your thoughts are going a mile a minute, you might find yourself forgetting simple things. (What the heck did I come into the kitchen to get? What was I about to say?)
If you find your memory and concentration are often making an exit, look at your stress levels. Are you getting enough sleep and hydration? The brain can actually shrink under stress. Our risk-perception even becomes skewed when we’re constantly in a state of high alert. So suddenly we might find we can’t focus on things that really matter, like a work deadline, driving directions to pick up our kids, important dates, etc.
If you find your concentration and memory are suffering, try doing some brain training exercises like Sudoku or download an app like Lumosity to help practice your focus. Not only do these brain games help you increase your memory and concentration, but they also relax you and give you a break from analyzing and worrying.
6. Anger and Short-temperedness
I’m sure I’m the only one who has EVER snapped at my husband or my kids because I was stressed out, right?
We’ve all been in a situation where we’re upset about something or worried, and instead of productively dealing with it, we take it out on our nearest and dearest. Stress lowers our tolerance for noise and can cause headaches and exhaustion, so we start to feel frazzled and easily annoyed.
If you find you’re in a state of constant anger or annoyance with your kids (or your spouse), it’s time to take a step back. Don’t beat yourself up about what a “terrible” mother or wife you are! Just take a moment to recognize the precious lives and personalities of your children and how they can be crushed by unkind words and anger.
Spending and enjoying time with your kids and finding the joy in every day can counteract the effects of stress and frustration. Learn to play with your kids and have conversations with them. Enjoy a family dinner and really listen when they talk about their day. Take a tech timeout to connect with each other and enjoy quality time together.
7. Sleep Interruption
Are you counting sheep for hours each night? Does your sleep seem unrestful? Do you toss and turn, suffer from nightmares, or just wake up feeling less-than-refreshed?
Sleep is greatly affected by stress, and yet, it’s so important in combating it and strengthening our coping skills. Practice good sleep hygiene and techniques. Avoid staring at your smartphone or tablet in bed. Go to bed at a consistent time and wake up regularly (even on weekends). Avoid caffeine after 2pm and heavy foods in general. Sleep in a dark, cool room, and use a white-noise maker or fan if you live by a busy street.
If you find you’re endlessly reviewing your to-do list or stressing out about something late at night, take a pen to paper and write it out. Sometimes simply getting it out of your head helps you let it go so you can deal with it in the morning. Tell yourself you will set time aside tomorrow first thing to tackle the problem or address it when you feel fresher. There really aren’t that many problems that can be resolved at 3am.
8. Appetite Loss or Increase
Some of us eat junk food to cope with stress—chocolate, cookies, chips or whatever you find soothing. (I don’t know anyone who finds broccoli soothing, but if you do more power to you!)
Others might find their appetite severely suffers under the effects of stress. Stomach distress is a common side effect. Stress can cause nausea and diarrhea, and both of those combined with headaches can make anyone’s appetite head for the hills.
In caveman times, we might have eaten more to prepare for winter or stressful times when there might be a scarcity of food. Similarly, if cavemen were on the run from a predator, their appetite would be suppressed so they weren’t distracted by the need to eat. Both of these evolutionary tricks have an impact on the way stress affects us today.
If you notice a sudden unexpected weight loss or gain, take a look at your stress levels. Even positive stress (like a full social calendar, wedding planning or a new baby) can cause weight gain or loss. Changes in appetite and digestive issues can also signal greater health concerns, so always visit a doctor if you experience a dramatic increase or decrease on the scale or if you notice a lot of GI distress.
The best way to beat stress is through rest. Give yourself time to do the things you find renewing and soothing—like reading, singing, meditation, exercise, or cooking. Whatever makes your heart feel lighter and brings joy into your life needs to be priority. If you really love a manicure or spa-time, give yourself a day of pampering (even at home). If you love a good page-turner, take half an hour and lose yourself in a book.
Make time for rest and renewal and you’ll find you can fight the effects of day-to-day stress! Watch for the signs and head it off before it takes over.
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