Each individual has a unique tolerance level for how much physical and emotional stress they can endure before something starts to give. Far too often people ignore the warning signs that their stress levels are becoming unmanageable and it takes a crisis of some kind to get them to change.
The speeding ticket from God
A couple of years ago I was rushing to work and made the split-second decision to keep going through a light when I knew very well that it was going to turn red. Moments later I was pulled over by an irate cop and on the receiving end of the full extent of his wrath along with a major ticket. As I waited for him to return to my car, I started to cry, not with frustration or self-pity but out of sheer relief that I hadn’t caused an accident.
The irony of this story was that I was on my way to give a seminar about how to manage stress and avoid burnout. I felt so profoundly grateful that I had received a wake up call without hurting someone else in the process. It really seemed like an enormous blessing in disguise and ever since then I have referred to this occasion as the time I received a speeding ticket from God.
My wish for you is that you don’t wait until something goes wrong or until your health begins to suffer to pay attention.
Watch for the symptoms
Excessive stress manifests physically and emotionally in a variety of ways. Here is a list of some common ones.
- Change in appetite. Losing or gaining weight is often a clear indicator that things are getting out of hand. Food may lose it’s appeal, or if you are like many people, you may find yourself downing too many of what I like to call “consolation calories”. If you notice that you have a stress-activated sweet tooth, you may be seeking comfort. If it is more generalized over consumption, you maybe trying to stuff your feelings down along with the extra food.
- Drinking etc. Monitor your alcohol consumption, that goes for any drug of your choice – including the more subtle forms of escapism like excess TV watching.
- Sleep. Losing sleep or can’t get enough of it; either way you will notice that you are feeling tired all the time. Ironically, increased exercise will give you more energy and creating soothing bedtime routines may also help.
- Tolerance. One of the more unpleasant side-effects of your stress for those around you is a decreased level of patience. Notice if you find yourself snapping at people; for me how I react to drivers cutting me off is a great litmus test.
- Memory. Short term memory problems can also be an indicator of stress. Concentration can also be affected.
- Getting sick. Stress has a direct effect on your immune system. More frequent colds can sometimes reveal that your body is taking notice before your mind.
- Clumsiness. “Less Haste, More Speed.” I find that I become more clumsy and less coordinated when very stressed, although it’s hard to discern how much of this is due to rushing.
- Relationships. For an instant reality check on your stress level, ask the people closest to you. They will be able to inform you whether you have been neglecting them and also whether they think you have been taking your stress out on them.
- Humor. How often are you laughing and smiling? If you can’t remember the last time, you have definitely been taking life too seriously for too long.
- Futility. A sense of hopelessness about what feels like endless burdens and a lack of purpose can also be clues.
This list is just a starting point.
Some of these may seem irrelevant or conversely, glaringly obvious. You might be able to come up with three of four more that I haven’t even mentioned right off the bat. You are the expert. The most important thing is that you start to become more conscious of how you are doing before you reach breaking point.
Start to develop your own list of red flags and warning signs, so you can take evasive action and avoid burning out.