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How to tell if your stress levels are normal or the sign of something more

How to tell if your stress levels are normal or the sign of something more

Posted: Aug 16, 2021 11:00 AM
Updated: Aug 16, 2021 11:00 AM

Stress is an everyday occurrence for most people, but too much of it could be signs of a deeper issue.

Stress is "a normal human response to anything physical or emotional that places a strain on the person," said Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

Acute stress, which is stress that arises during a specific moment for a short period of time, can be helpful in navigating that specific situation, said Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, a certified stress mastery educator.

In the moment, your heart rate and breathing speeds up, she said. Chronic stress occurs after the body's system is repeatedly triggered, she added.

Stress itself is not bad, but it becomes toxic when it doesn't dissipate after the stressful situation is over, Ackrill said.

When stress could be something more

It can be difficult to determine when stress slides into something more severe like anxiety and depression, she noted.

"If the worry is intrusive beyond the stressor, that's anxiety," Ackrill said. "If the sadness is a mood that you can't shift beyond the situation, that's depression."

Stress on its own isn't a psychiatric condition, Saltz said, but it can exacerbate other mental conditions like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It could also be a sign of general anxiety disorder, which is characterized by at least six months of excessive worry among other symptoms, according to Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, psychologist and founder of the AAKOMA Project, a youth mental health nonprofit.

Some common symptoms include sleep problems, restlessness and difficulty concentrating, she added.

On the other hand, if your stress resolves after the situation is over and you're able to function at your optimal level at work and school, it might just be that -- stress, Saltz said.

How to seek help

If you suspect you might have chronic stress or another mental disorder, Breland-Noble said you should seek assistance from a mental health professional.

Prior to seeing a mental health professional, she recommended speaking with a trusted friend or family member to see if they've noticed anything different in you too.

Quick stress-relieving techniques

People feeling stressed might also benefit from mindfulness meditation, Breland-Noble said. One exercise she recommended involves using your five senses to identify things you can see, hear, taste, smell, touch and then something you are grateful for.

"The focus it takes to list each of these things is often just enough focus to move our minds off what is stressing us and into the moment," she said.

Some people may find stress-relief from aerobic exercise, said Saltz, such as thirty minutes of activity to get your heart rate up.

One of the oldest and simplest techniques is exercised breathing, Ackrill said. "Put a hand on your belly and see if you can breathe in so that you diaphragm descends and that hand on your belly rises," she explained.

When you slow your breathing and focus inward, it sends signals to your brain that you're okay, Ackrill said.

There are hundreds of other stress-relieving techniques online, she said, but what most of them have in common is that they limit your brain from thinking about the past or the future and instead help it focus on the present.

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