8 Things That Get Way Harder When You’re Stressed
Short-term stress can actually boost your productivity and immunity. But when that stress won’t go away, you could find yourself struggling.
You can’t stop snapping at your partner
Chronic stress triggers an enzyme that attacks a molecule in your brain, making you more irritable and less social, says Kathleen Hall, PhD, DMin, founder and CEO of Mindful Living Network and The Stress Institute. But listening to that drive to push people away could actually make your stress worse. Social connection causes your body to produce the mood-boosting hormone oxytocin, overriding the production of the stress hormone cortisol, Dr. Hall says. “We were meant to reduce stress by being together,” she says. Text a friend or meet for coffee when you’re dealing with stress, or set up a weekly lunch group to keep those overwhelming thoughts away. Check out these other scary ways your brain reacts to stress.
You’re losing focus
When you’re dealing with stress, your body goes into fight or flight mode, pouring its efforts into keeping safe from danger. That’s why it might be hard to keep your attention on a single task, and you’re more likely to get distracted. “The brain’s response becomes all about survival,” says Heidi Hanna, PhD, author of Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship with Stress. “The fear response takes up all the energy of the brain for how to protect yourself.” Here are more reasons you can’t focus.
You keep tossing and turning
Normally, your body produces its highest levels of cortisol in the morning to help you wake up. Over the course of the day, levels decrease so you can drift into sleep, says Dr. Hanna. But when your body continues pumping cortisol when you’re feeling stressed, your brain stays active to fight off the stressor you perceive, keeping you wide awake. And that lack of sleep can have a cyclic effect because you don’t get the rejuvenation you need from a restful night, says Aarti Gupta, PsyD, clinical director of anxiety and family therapy center TherapyNest. “When you are chronically stressed, it can be difficult to sleep, and lack of sleep during the night can cause moody and stressful mornings—and the cycle continues,” she says. Dr. Hall recommends listening to a playlist of relaxing music or guided imagery, or picking up a relaxing book to help you doze off.
You can’t resist that tray of cookies
In fight or flight mode, all your senses are on high alert—including taste and smell, which makes your favorite indulgences seem even tastier, says Dr. Hall. Plus, sugar-based carbohydrates are a quick energy source that your body craves when you’re in crisis mode, says Dr. Hanna. “We think we should choose a cheeseburger and milkshake because it has calories to restore energy,” she says. “It feels like we’ll only do it one time, but the reality is that because stress is so constant in our environment, it tends to become a bad habit.” Stick to a 100-calorie serving of chocolate when you’re dealing with stress, which can actually calm you down, Dr. Hall suggests. Or snack on blueberries, which have antioxidants to help depression and memory. Here are some signs you’re more stressed than you realize.
You can’t kick a cold
Fight or flight mode triggers inflammation to protect you from danger. At first, this response is a good thing, defending you against damaged cells and harmful pathogens so you can start to heal. But if that stressor doesn’t go away and the inflammation becomes chronic, your immune system could start to break down. “If a military is constantly engaged in fighting something off, at some point it becomes too exhausting for the system to keep that up,” says Dr. Hanna. “The immune system can’t keep up with the demands.” Plus, because your brain is so focused on survival, healthy habits go to the wayside. If you find yourself skipping exercise or a good night’s sleep while drinking and smoking more, your immune system will take even more of a hit, says Dr. Gupta. To find out more, check out these silent signs you’re sick from stress.
You can’t get in the mood
The same hormone that produces sex hormones is also in charge of producing cortisol, says Dr. Hanna. So while your body is putting its energy into producing extra cortisol, your sex drive goes down. Plus, while you’re dealing with stress, intimacy becomes a lower priority for survival. “The brain is minimizing a lot of the sex hormones and sex drive because it’s not seen as important,” says Dr. Hanna. “We decrease energy, and when we lose energy, we lose passion for the things that were important to us before, including connections and relationships with people we care about.”
You don’t breathe properly
During times of stress, you might start taking short, shallow breaths like you’re hyperventilating, says Dr. Hall. If your breathing stays like that for a long period of time, you could be keeping oxygen from your brain, heart, and other vital organs. Fight the problem by reminding yourself to inhale and exhale deeply. “When you train yourself to take deep breaths right away, you’re feeding those neurotransmitters oxygen,” says Dr. Hall. “It’s immediately stopping the fight or flight reaction.” Find out 37 ways to make managing stress easier.
You can’t see the silver lining
Because you’re primed for survival, your brain has more circuits to pay attention to negatives than to positives, says Dr. Hanna. You’re also quicker to respond to a stressor than to pleasure because you need a fast reaction to danger. When you’re dealing with stress from the chaos of life, take time to appreciate everything that’s going well. “You have to be intentional about practicing positivity,” says Dr. Hanna. “We can train ourselves to become more aware of the positives. It’s like training a muscle—it takes work to build that up.” Write a list of things you’re grateful for, or send a thank-you note to someone you care about, she suggests. Next, find out the “facts” about stress that just aren’t true.