My chances of getting tickets for the Quidditch World Cup are greater than the chances of recognizing the causes of background stress on the first try. It just ain’t gonna happen.
What I do tend to notice first are the physical symptoms of stress. It has taken a bit of time and practice, but I have my tics. You do to – the thing you do when you are about to tip over the edge. For me, it’s an unbroken chain of thoughts at warp speed that get more dramatic by the second.
If the list reads like your generic hypochondriac death-by-carrot symptoms, I can’t argue. Stress is so prevalent in our society, worshipped even (“I’m SO busy”), that it permeates everything else as well.
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Low energy
- Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent colds and infections
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
- Sleep problems
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Here is where I give you the bad news.
Yes, that cup of coffee may make you more alert (or even help your migraine). BUT. And this is a huge but. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. Biomedical explanation aside, the short version is that it affects almost every aspect of your body.
(note that there are beneficial side effects of caffeine, I’m just talking about the ones related to stress)
- Confusion – too much of a good thing (alertness) can make your brain confused
- Headache – either from too much caffeine or having caffeine withdrawal
- Rapid heartbeat
- Heartburn or upset stomach (caffeine increases the acid in your stomach)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea – too much of a good thing quickly swings in the opposite direction
- Caffeine in the bones – prevents calcium absorption, increasing your risk of osteoporosis and causing havoc when you have the inevitable old-age fall.
- Anxiety and sleep disorders – caffeine can make these worse (trust me, I hate to be the one to break it to you. I pouted for over a week – my husband can attest)
- Increased blood pressure – temporary, it will go back down to normal once the caffeine wears off
Removing the flow of caffeine to your brain can result in muscle aches and irritability, not to mention headaches. And yes, the term withdrawal is usually connected with addictive drugs. Your body gets used to having caffeine around and there is a period of adjustment when you take it away.
Not knowing the source of our physical symptoms makes it even harder to deduce the source of the problem. It’s like a food allergy, take things away one by one and see if they help.
I was never a coffee drinker (preferred tea) until my husband and I moved in together. He is VERY much a coffee person. Our morning routine included having a cup of coffee together, and waiting for the cold press to steep was a time to talk.
Fast forward a few years and I was struggling to get things under control. My mind was a runaway train constantly and I ticked all of those stress boxes at one time or another.
On a whim (after ignoring the suggestion a few months earlier), I stopped drinking coffee in the morning. As luck would have it, the tea in the house was an herbal tea (decaf), so I went caffeine free cold turkey. Within a day I could feel the difference.
If your body is acting stressed, and you give it stress, then it’s just going to be super stressed. The background stress in our lives gives us enough of a baseline that the triggers don’t have to be very big. Why add to it by making our bodies act stressed out? Our brains are smart, but physiological experiences have strong connections to the brain, and our brains have a hard time telling a caffeine racing heartbeat from the racing heartbeat as a result of seeing a snake.
See, I told you there was a lot of overlap!
The key is to be aware of what is happening, and if you recognize a combination of these, stress is likely lurking under there somewhere. Awareness is the water to the stress fire – once you recognize it for what it is, it loses some of its power. As physical symptoms are the easiest to recognize (when are you NOT going to notice insomnia for no apparent reason?), they are a great opportunity to be more in touch with your body. Listen to it, learn when you feel a certain way and what the triggers are.
And tomorrow? Try cutting back the caffeine by one cup, or completely. See how it feels.
The rest of the Stress Recognition Series can be found here: Pt 1