7 signs of stress – is it time to take a break?

Life makes demands on all of us, all of the time: work, home, relationships, health; we gamely juggle the load, sometimes with spirit and enthusiasm, at other times with a sense of obligation or duty.

The point is, we cope; we get the things done that need to be done and our lives roll on, maybe not perfectly, but in a way that we can say with some confidence, “I’ve got this”.

Low-level stress can be motivating in small doses. Who hasn’t responded to a looming deadline by working with a bit more focus? Unfortunately, sometimes the demands on us can feel overwhelming. When that happens, our mental and even our physical health can be affected.

But what level of pressure is acceptable, and how do we recognise when we need help?

I’m fine” must be one of the world’s most overused phrases. Any time we’re asked if we’re OK, we reply mechanically: “I’m fine”. And then, one day, we realise we’re not fine. Not fine at all.

It’s time to become more self-aware; time to listen to our minds and bodies and recognise the signs that we need a break to recharge.  But what are the signs that we need to look out for? And what can we do about stress?

We’ve been inspired by Headspace, an organisation which uses a mindful and meditative approach to help us become self-aware and make long-lasting improvements to the quality of our lives.

Distraction

You want to work; you need to work! But every time you try to settle, something drags your attention away. Perhaps you’re not comfortable, perhaps you’re restless, or thirsty, or you haven’t checked your phone in over 20 minutes. There’s an irresistible urge to do something, anything, rather than focus on the task in front of you.

If constant distraction prevents you from concentrating, it could be a sign that it’s time to take a break.

Read this article to find out why procrastination isn’t a time management problem, it’s an emotional management problem. You’ll learn why you might be avoiding some tasks, and tips to help you let go of the distractions. This short video could help you to create space for more productive tasks.

Headache

There’s nothing worse than pain to make you unproductive. Stress can lead to tension, which in turn can cause a headache.

Tension headaches are often described as feeling like a tight band around your head. All sorts of situations can cause them, but work-related pressure is often a trigger. Don’t ignore stress-related headaches, you could be setting yourself up for a long-term, chronic condition.

Recognising that your headache could be caused by stress is the first step to freeing yourself from the pain. Listen to your body and slow down, if only for 10 to 15 minutes.  Deep breathing, meditation and relaxing your muscles may help your headaches. This Headspace video will take just a minute to listen to, and can help you to let go of stress.

Of course, if your headaches persist or become more severe, you should always consult your doctor to check for underlying causes

Lethargy

You’ve got no energy; you feel sluggish and fatigued; nothing interests you, and lazing on the sofa seems like the only option. In short, you just can’t be bothered!

If that sounds familiar, stress could be a factor.  Stress effectively lowers the amount of oxygen that blood vessels are carrying to the brain. The less oxygen that reaches your brain, the more lethargy you’ll feel.

Want to give it the boot? Try these tips:

  • Good breathing techniques can really help to relieve stress, so sit up straight, plant your feet squarely on the floor and focus on taking slow, deep breaths. This short mini-meditation exercise will help you.
  • Listen to music that inspires you. Power to the Playlist is an article that’s primarily about athletic performance, but it demonstrates how the right music can lift your mood and inspire you to greater effort.
  • Get moving. Even a 15-minute walk can give you an energy boost. The NHS also has tips to help you to overcome fatigue.

Creative Block

As humans, we need creativity in our lives. Creativity doesn’t have to be defined as artistic, though; a talented few may paint a masterpiece or write a best-seller, but for most of us, creativity simply means doing meaningful and fulfilling activities, learning to explore, to be curious or to innovate.

In our everyday lives, we might express our creativity in DIY around the home or helping our kids with an art project, in reading, baking, playing the guitar or finding new ways to present data in that pesky spreadsheet. Or perhaps we are chipping away at that best-selling novel!

Taking a creative approach to life helps us to become better problem-solvers, to look at things with a more analytical mind. Staying engaged is good for our mental wellbeing, too, helping you to clear the clutter from your mind and reducing stress.

If your creative juices aren’t flowing, you’re struggling to find ways to engage in hobbies or activities that you enjoy, or you simply aren’t interested in the things you used to do, it may be a sign that stress is getting in the way. Teach your mind to find some space.

Anxiety

Anxiety can affect you both mentally and physically, but the symptoms are tricky to pin down. Not everyone reacts in the same way; you might feel a sense of dread or be constantly on edge, you might be irritable, restless or have difficulty concentrating or sleeping.

Temporary or short-term periods of anxiety are perfectly natural – a job interview or exam for example. But if you feel worried about a whole range of situations and issues rather than one specific event, anxiety can affect your day-to-day life. This long-term condition goes by the name of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

There are ways you can self-help for less serious feelings of anxiety. Meditation is a natural way to relieve some of the symptoms – this video might help – but see a GP if anxiety is affecting your daily life. They’ll be able to find out if you could have GAD.

Memory Loss

Do you struggle to remember details a short time after you’ve been told them? Can’t stay on task or remember a plan? Don’t assume it’s just your age! High or sustained levels of stress and anxiety can cause memory loss symptoms.

In normal circumstances our brains respond to short-term stress by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, priming the body for a “flight or fight” response. But if that response continues long-term it can damage the area of your brain associated with memory.

Stress, anxiety or depression can cause forgetfulness, confusion, or difficulty concentrating, but the good news is that memory impairment in these circumstances is usually reversible.

If you’re concerned about memory loss, see your doctor, who can determine the degree of the problem, diagnose the cause and recommend treatment.

If your forgetfulness is related to stress, a stress reduction routine could help to get things back on track.  Studies have indicated that a mindfulness meditation program can make measurable improvements to memory.

Negativity

Do you find yourself thinking negatively more than you used to? Convinced you’re going to fail before you even try? Nervous in social situations or battling a harsh inner critic that makes you feel bad about everything you do? You’re not alone!

It may feel as if everyone around you is upbeat and sparky – you only have to spend five minutes on social media to feel that everyone’s doing better than you – but the first thing to say is that everyone feels under a cloud from time to time.

If you feel that you’re caught in a pit of negativity, it might be a good idea to pay attention to the causes. Unhelpful thinking patterns can be a symptom of stress, worry, anxiety, depression or low self-worth.

Don’t beat yourself up about these negative feelings. It doesn’t really change anything and you’ll just feel worse when you realise that you’re still stuck in this disagreeable mindset.

Negative experiences stick in our minds far more prominently than positive ones, but with some practice it’s possible to resist this bias and change our pattern of thought.

Meditation can provide you with a small time-out to readjust your attitude. When you catch yourself thinking negatively, take a few minutes out from whatever you’re doing to practice a new way of thinking. Headspace has a wide range of video resources to help with this.

Be kind to yourself

We need a range of human emotions in our lives, and we might think that we can cope, but when unhelpful feelings persist and overwhelm us, it can become a problem.

The biggest hurdle is to recognise what’s happening in our mind – thoughts, feelings, emotions – and make time to address any issues. It’s difficult to maintain healthy routines and make time for ourselves, even when we know it will really benefit us. But if we can set aside a regular time that we can look forward to, we might find that we have calmer minds and cultivate more productive lives.

Be kind to yourself.