Everybody says they are “stressed” at some stage. But not all stress is the same.
That’s because stress takes place in phases, and each phase has a different impact on us physically, mentally, emotionally, and to our spirit – which then come out externally through our behaviour. The symptoms of stress change depending on how long we’ve been feeling stress. These phases are known as the General Adaptation Syndrome.
When you understand what phase of stress you are experiencing, you can more easily know how much attention you need to give to trying to resolve the cause of your stress.
You can also determine what strategies will give you the best results – because what is effective for addressing short-term stress is different to addressing long-term stress and burnout.
A Quick Point to Note First:
Our stress response is like an automatic emergency procedure for our mind and body. Just as a building’s fire detection system sets off an automatic array of alarms and sprinklers, our stress response is our brain’s instinctive reaction when our mind perceives a situation as being threatening in some way.
Situations are not stressful in and of themselves. And people are not inherently stress-producing. We’ve all seen situations where one person finds a situation stressful and another thinks it’s fine. Likewise for people interactions.
Your stress response is set off by how you perceive a situation. This perception can be realistic or it can be inaccurate, depending on the beliefs and thoughts you have influencing your perception.
The good news is that you can develop strategies that will decrease how often you feel stress, how strongly you feel it, and how long you feel it for.
For now, I want to outline the phases of stress, because the stress phase you’re in can affect the stress reduction strategies you choose.
Phase 1 – The Alarm Phase
The first phase of stress is usually referred to as the Alarm Phase.
It refers to our immediate stress response when we perceive a situation that is a potential threat to us. You’ve probably already heard of this phase as the “fight-or-flight response.”
In this phase our brain responds to the “alarm” with hundreds of responses. One of these is to release stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol into our bloodstream to give it a boost in order to do whatever must be done to survive, such as escape from a predator.
These hormones cause the body to become highly stimulated. The heart beats harder, the lungs breathe faster, your muscles may tense – you’re ready to fight or to run. The vision gets sharper as it focuses on the potential threat. The liver releases extra glucose for energy, and blood pressure goes up. The digestive, immune and reproductive systems go on hold temporarily so all that energy can be directed toward responding to the threat.
This is all because our nervous system was designed to help increase the chances of surviving a physical threat to safety.
PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 1 STRESS
When you are alarmed by a request from your boss, a comment by a colleague or by the overload of tasks you need to get through before the end of the day, the body immediately goes into the first phase of stress.
Physically, the stress response may express itself in any or all of these ways:
• A faster heart rate or “pounding heart”
• Faster breathing
• Blood pressure elevates
• Muscle tension, particularly in the chest, neck or shoulders
• Churning stomach, nausea or vomiting
• Stomachaches or intestinal problems such as diarrhea or constipation
• Dry mouth
MENTAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 1 STRESS
When the adrenalin is released through our body, it also causes a shift in the area of the brain that has control.
The logical, rational part of the brain becomes impaired, and we revert to instinctive behaviours because they’re quicker and more like reflexes.
That’s why it’s extremely difficult to think calmly and rationally when you’re having a stress response.
• Hard to think clearly
• Hard to concentrate
• Mind races very fast
EMOTIONAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 1 STRESS
In addition to the changes to our mental function, our emotional state changes too.
The stress hormones cause a shift from the logical rational part of the brain, over to the limbic system, the area responsible for instincts and emotions.
That’s why it’s easy to become highly emotional and why it’s so easy to spit out words you later regret.
• Cry easily
• Get angry easily
• Become anxious
SPIRITUAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 1 STRESS
Spirituality can take on many different forms – it’s not necessarily about religion, though it can take that form. It may help connect you to a higher power, the world, a small community, music, art, or nature. When a spiritual person encounters stress, research shows that they are often able to call upon their beliefs to help them to handle the stress and thereby reduce its symptoms.
Stress can still take a toll in a spiritual sense.
• Focused on the present, the immediate situation, rather than long term
• Irrational or negative thinking
• Going into ‘survival mode’.
BEHAVIOUR SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 1 STRESS
The fight or flight response also causes changes in our behaviour due to the effects of the stress hormones and subsequent change in brain function. Some people follow the “fight” instinct, others prefer the flight option and walk away from the situation take time out or withdraw into themselves. Others can become frozen, paralysed by the stress hormones and unable to think quickly or clearly enough to react.
• Fight or become aggressive
• Run away
Phase 2 – The Resistance Phase
If the situation that alarmed us does not disappear, our body goes into Phase 2: Resistance.
During Phase 2, the body shifts the mix of stress hormones over from being mostly the quick acting adrenalin over to the longer lasting cortisol. It also releases other hormones, particularly corticosteroids. Because of this, blood sugar and blood pressure levels rise. This is done to help us maintain energy levels (as if we’re still fighting off that dragon) and to help us adapt physically to the ongoing tension.
Phase 2 is the period of time when we recognise and begin to interpret the stressful situation. We try to adapt to it or cope with it.
Our response is largely dictated by our core beliefs, attitudes and values. As you can imagine, these directly affect the choices we make. If we consider the situation a threat, demand, or a disaster, we may compromise our own ability to cope.
If a person remains in Phase 2 for a prolonged period of time, or continually bounces from Phase 1 to Phase 2, they will begin to suffer irritability and fatigue. It is too difficult for the body to sustain a highly stimulated state over time.
PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 2 STRESS
Recognising the physical symptoms is usually simple because they’re the things we notice first. However, we may tend to only notice them as an isolated example – “I’m having a lot of headaches” without stopping to realise they are caused by stress.
• Tooth grinding
• Low blood sugar (more hunger) or higher blood sugar
• A need for greater sleep
• Weight gain or weight loss
• More colds or flu than usual
• Reproductive problems
• Hormonal problems
• Food cravings
• Low energy, fatigue
MENTAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 2 STRESS
Our mental abilities are affected by the Phase 2 stress response too.
People may describe you as forgetful or preoccupied. You agree with them, as you realise your productivity is down, you can’t concentrate, and your thoughts seem disorganised or scattered.
• Inability to concentrate
• Forgetfulness/poor memory
• Jump to conclusions quicker
EMOTIONAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 2 STRESS
In addition to the physical symptoms, you may find that you have emotional symptoms of stress. You may become angry, critical or hostile. You may feel depressed or withdrawn, no longer wishing to interact with your friends. You may have a feeling of unreality or anxiety. You might simply be restless, unable to sit still. You may suddenly find yourself in an angry outburst or bursting into tears — when it isn’t normal for you.
At night, you may find yourself exhausted, but unable to sleep. If you do finally fall asleep, you might have nightmares as your subconscious tries to make sense of what is happening in your life — making you unable to get back to sleep. It can become a vicious cycle.
• Nervous, anxious or irritable
• Bad moods
• apathy, loss of interest in work or personal life
• Begin to experience depression
• Feel not in control
• Experiencing More negative emotions than positive ones
• Anger, short tempered
BEHAVIOURAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 2 STRESS
Your friends and family may notice the behavioral signs of stress you exhibit. Although you feel headaches and clenched fists, they notice your behavior changes. They may comment on your increased smoking, alcohol use, or drug use. They may chide you for overeating or undereating. They will also take note of your carelessness with possessions or your propensity to have accidents.
Often people who are experiencing stress find a great need to control circumstances around them. A formerly easy-going boss becomes a driving taskmaster; a parent makes demands that no child could ever meet. Recognise these as what they are – a sign of stress in the person.
Others go the other way, giving up control of things they should be in charge of. A mother may stay in bed all day, rather than tending to her little ones. An employee’s inbox continues to pile up, with no notable productivity happening, even though she appears to be busy at her desk every day.
Other people may seem tense, and maybe even a bit frozen in time. They seem unable to respond to anything, yet if you were to question them, under the surface they show extreme nervousness or agitation.
• Hostility and increasingly aggressive behaviours, like when driving or disciplining your children.
• More task focused than people focused, to avoid interacting with people
• Putting your needs ahead of others
• Self-medicating through the use of drugs, alcohol, food, sex, escapism – anything that helps you feel better for a while.
• Compulsiveness — repeated hand washing, shuffling papers over and over, risk taking, or even shoplifting.
If the people around you describe you as jumping to illogical conclusions, selfish, cold, or distant, it’s time to take positive action!
If we don’t address stress when it is this second phase, it can develop into much more serious problems that are harder and longer to recover from.
Chronic stress can lead to a decline in physical health and a range of stress-related conditions such as hypertension, stroke, obesity, sleep problems, skin conditions, depression, heart attack, diabetes, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia.
Phase 3 – The Exhaustion Phase
If we stay in Phase 2 for a long time, the glands that produce the stress hormones become exhausted, as do the organs that have either been stimulated or shut down by the hormones. This is Phase 3 of stress – the phase of Exhaustion.
In this third stage of stress, we feel depleted. The chronic production of stress hormones has worn out our physiological functioning, causing deep physical exhaustion, and fatigue even when not doing very much. There can also be mental and emotional effects such as depression. The body has depleted its energy, as well as its ability to combat disease. The body is both mentally and physically on the verge of collapse.
Long term chronic stress weakens our body, due to the stress hormones that circulate constantly through it. Our physiological systems aren’t made to work on overdrive for long periods. They’ll eventually start to lose efficiency, break-down, or even collapse and stop working. Chronic stress can cause serious illnesses, as well as burnout:
• Chronic fatigue
• Adrenal exhaustion
• Behavioural problems
• Relationship issues
PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 3 STRESS
Stress exhaustion is the stage we reach after prolonged high-stress situations. You may think of it as chronic stress. Stress exhaustion is both mental and physical, causing you to feel frustrated and helpless by the situation that is bringing on the stress. If not addressed, stress exhaustion can be debilitating, causing long-term health problems.
Other factors often come into play during Phase 3. For example, you might not have any energy because you don’t eat or exercise during the stress response. The lack of energy could also be from adrenal exhaustion, a circumstance in which the adrenal glands become worn out from constantly pumping stress hormones into the body. When adrenal exhaustion occurs, blood sugar levels drop. This causes low energy levels, fatigue and physical exhaustion.
• Physical exhaustion; no energy.
• Stress hormones in your system shut down non-essential functions like the digestive, immune, and the reproductive systems.
• Problems with digestion – bloating, constipation, irritable bowel disorder,
• Get sick easily
• Problems with reproduction
• Suppressed thyroid function
• Blood sugar spirals out of control
• Muscle and bone density decrease
• Increased abdominal fat
• Cortisol interferes with serotonin activity, leading to more depression and sleep problems
• Chronic elevated heart rate; can cause more severe heart problems
MENTAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 3 STRESS
Mental exhaustion affects the body as well as the mind. It is brought on by excessive, long-term stress: working long hours in hectic job settings, for example, or a constantly stressful personal life. The burnout causes you to feel empty inside. Eventually, it affects every relationship as well as job performance. It is very important, if you are feeling this way, to realize there is a problem so that you are able to seek out a solution.
• Unable to concentrate
• Poor memory
• A “why bother” attitude
• Worst of all, you become your own greatest enemy, making self-deprecating remarks that reflect the truth: you are losing confidence in your own abilities.
Often, those who are suffering from long-term stress and burnout will begin to lose self-esteem. They feel defeated, even when they are able to complete the task at hand. Because of this feeling, they become stuck in a cycle of exhaustion-hopelessness-exhaustion.
The person may begin to procrastinate, even with simple responsibilities. Their motivation to work through a job to completion is gone, so it takes them a long time to complete any task. They may even begin to self-medicate, using alcohol, drugs or food for overindulgence.
EMOTIONAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 3 STRESS
It is difficult to separate the mental symptoms from the emotional. People who are suffering from burnout can lose the ability to care about their work or family. They may withdraw from activities that were formerly fun and interesting. Hobbies that once seemed to be the centre of life are abandoned. The person simply wants out–of everything.
• Feeling like you have nothing to give.
• Not caring about anything anymore
• Not engaging in things you do care about
• Feeling like whatever you do is ineffective.
• Distancing yourself from people
SPIRITUAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 3 STRESS
In this phase, the spiritual feeling can be of emptiness, restlessness, dissatisfaction or depression.
• No sense of peace
• Low passion/enthusiasm for things
• Feel disconnected
• Low motivation
BEHAVIOURAL SYMPTOMS OF PHASE 3 STRESS
As you probably know from personal experience, when workers begin to feel overwhelmed, they become less productive. That’s because they lose confidence that they can complete the job. They feel as if there’s no way they will ever get ahead; they begin to become irritable. They feel ineffective, so their work becomes less rewarding to them.
Instead of becoming angry, some people become withdrawn, seeming to shut out those around them. They show no emotion, seeming not to care about anything. They may appear depressed or spaced out. They have retreated into themselves as a self-protective measure.
• Reduced work performance
• Withdrawal from people
If you’re feeling run-down, stressed, discouraged, overloaded or burned out, it’s tempting to blame your job, your employer or boss, or the company policies for how you feel. And it’s quite possible that they have played a role.
But if you truly want a better quality work life, it’s up to you to take action to improve the situation. It doesn’t do much good wishing someone else would notice your situation and step forward to fix things. If you wait for someone else to alter your work environment on your behalf, you’ll likely be waiting a very long time!
If work stress is affecting your life, the wise approach is to take control and do something about it. The very fact that you’re reading this article means that you’ve already taken a first step toward doing just that!
If you’d like some support and guidance, we can help you with managing work stress and recovering from the effects of chronic stress. Get in touch today for a free, confidential and no-obligation discussion on what options might suit you best. We can offer you a variety of coaching and counselling support options.