But what happens when you don’t get stressed at work, you are stressed at work?
According to the Mayo Clinic, the body’s response to stress—that surge of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol—is usually self-limiting. Once the stressor or perceived threat is gone, your hormone levels, heart rate, and blood pressure all return to their normal levels. But when that stress is always present, your hormone level never goes back to the baseline, which can cause real health problems.
Okay, we get it, stress is bad and we need less of it. But in today’s hustle, then side hustle, do whatever it takes, sleep when you’re dead world, it can be hard to recognize when you’re overdoing it.
So for all of us who are to busy to check in on ourselves, here are some signs that you’re burning the candle at both ends—and about to burn out.
Your body physically hurts
If you’ve ever wondered why it feels like you were in a car accident when all you did was go to work, go home, and go to sleep, then you’ll be happy (sure, let’s go with that) to know there is a reason: Stress.
According to the American Institute of Stress, high levels of stress can cause neck aches, back pain, and muscle spasms. You may also be clenching and/or grinding your teeth at night without even realizing it. Which can lead to jaw pain and headaches.
“Think of these aches and pains as your body communicating the amount of stress you’re under,” says Eve Sturges, a therapist and life coach in Los Angeles. “Healthy pressure shouldn’t cause pain to your body.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends tracking your stressors and your body’s reaction to them as a way to get a better idea of what your body is communicating. “Keep a journal for a week or two to identify which situations create the most stress and how you respond to them,” they suggest. “Record your thoughts, feelings and information about the environment, including the people and circumstances involved, the physical setting and how you reacted. Did you raise your voice? Get a snack from the vending machine? Go for a walk? Taking notes can help you find patterns among your stressors and your reactions to them.”
You don’t remember the last time you got up from your desk
When you’re particularly busy at work it’s normal to skip going out for lunch. But when you’re overly stressed, skipping going out becomes skipping lunch entirely. Soon, you’re skipping bathroom breaks.
Changes in appetite and UTIs from not going to the bathroom when you need to are both signs of stress. Sturges says, “The healthier you are, the more productive you’re going to be. So make taking care of yourself as non-negotiable as your work deadlines.”
Set an alarm on your phone that remind you to get up and take a walk every couple of hours. Bring your lunch from home and actually leave your desk to go eat it. And seriously, go to the bathroom when nature calls.
You can’t focus on anything
How’s this for a vicious cycle? You’re overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do, but you’re so stressed you can’t concentrate on anything and therefore can’t make any progress.
Sturges suggest you try focusing on something else. “There are so many apps and sites for a quick three minute meditation,” she says. “Taking that small break can be helpful for refocusing on yourself and your needs and therefore your work. Any amount of time that you can set aside for any kind of mindfulness exercise is always helpful.”
You always have a cold
The hormone cortisol that our bodies secrete when we’re stressed is actually a big component of a healthy immune system. But when your cortisol levels never go back down to normal, the hormone becomes less effective. That’s when you get sick… and stay sick… for what feels like months.
“If you’re sick, your body is no longer suggesting that it’s overwhelmed,” says Sturges. “Constantly being sick is your body screaming for help.”
The APA says that switching off and actually taking some time to replenish and return your body to its normal state is necessary to overcoming stress sickness. “When possible, take time off to relax and unwind, so you come back to work feeling reinvigorated and ready to perform at your best,” they suggest. “When you’re not able to take time off, get a quick boost by turning off your smartphone and focusing your attention on non-work activities for a while.”
You can’t sleep
Even though you’re completely exhausted at the end of your busy day, stress can make it so that you just can’t fall asleep. And, perhaps even worse, stress can make it so that when you do finally fall asleep, your sleep isn’t restful.
This sign in particular should be a wake up call, no pun intended. Lack of sleep is only going to make the other signs worse.
Sturges suggests working on your sleep hygiene to break the cycle: “Create a routine for yourself that includes a direct quieting-down process. Start dimming lights and turning off technology—definitely put away your phone and email—an hour before you lay down so that you can give you body time to rest, even if you can’t sleep.”
Let’s be real, you’re always going to have to deal with stress in your life, but you can prevent stress from becoming your life. So now that you know the signs, do something about it. Take breaks, disconnect once in a while, and ask for help when you need it.