Hidden Stress

Decoding the signals of covert stress.
Published October 5, 2022

In honour of National Stress Awareness Day, we’re talking about signs and symptoms of stress that some of us may not recognize – plus how to deal with stress and reduce it.

“When we think about the symptoms of stress, we often think about racing thoughts, feeling scatterbrained, elevated heart rate, and shallow breathing. But there are many ways that stress can manifest in the body and mind,” says Natalie Moore, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles.

“There is a phenomenon called somatization, which is a fancy way of saying a psychological issue that shows up as physical symptoms in the body. Many people express stress as headaches, digestive issues, chest or back pain,” explains Moore. “This can make it difficult for the individual to seek a solution for their symptoms, because they may go to their doctor, get all of their testing done and have all of their results come back normal.”

Moore adds that burnout from overwork can also show up in some interesting ways beyond simply feeling fatigued or having reduced work performance. “Individuals who are burned out will often experience a sense of hopelessness, [a] cynical outlook on life, increased use of substances, and withdrawal from relationships.”

Matt Scarfo, a NASM-certified personal trainer and resident training expert at Lift Vault, says when he’s working with long-time personal training clients, there comes a time when he has to prioritize stress management over results in the gym.

“That’s because your body often doesn’t see physical stress, the stress you accumulate by working out and building your body, as different from mental stress,” he says. “To evaluate stress, we often look for signs in behaviour, and while it’s easy to see things like fatigue and sleeplessness, identifying forms of mild, chronic stress can be difficult.”

One of the signs of chronic stress he looks for in his clients is the inability to relax and do nothing.

“We have a strong hustle culture, which means that people are always expected to fill their time with something. However, that means you might never get the rest and recovery you need,” he says. “If your mind is always racing, filled with to-do lists, and if you’ve never taken a day off from your responsibilities, you need to get out of your routine and take a break. Compulsive productivity, which can be seen as working all week and then spending all weekend caring for the family or household, is really common in women, and can impact how you recover from exercise, illness and more acute stressors.”

He also points out that some of our unconscious stress-coping mechanisms can actually become stressors in themselves.

“Do you have some interesting coping mechanisms? Like compulsive note-taking or date setting? Do you get agitated if some of your routines are interrupted? You might be carrying stress that you didn’t know you have. Some people get intensely worried about disappointing people in their lives or forgetting a commitment,” he explains. “Building coping mechanisms is great, but they can develop into unique stressors that disrupt your thoughts or the flow of your life. If you find yourself stressed out about something coming up on the calendar or forgetting to pick up milk on the way home from work, your worry is increasing the burden of stress on your body.”

The answer here, he explains, is to find a way to take the stress out of our coping mechanisms and help ourselves relax.

Steps to address stress

Moore identifies four main steps to addressing stress:

1) Acknowledging it as an issue

2) Identifying the main sources of stress in your life

3) Seeking support to better manage stress

4) Taking consistent action steps toward either reducing stressors or increasing stress tolerance/resilience

Step 4 comes down to two main ways of dealing with stress – either eliminating the source of the stress or increasing your own ability to handle that stress (or both).

“For example,” Moore says, “someone who has a high-stress job that is having a negative impact on their life can either change jobs to a less stressful role or can learn stress management tools.”

Such tools include self-help activities such as exercise, yoga, meditation, engaging in relaxing hobbies, mindfulness, listening to soothing music, calling a friend, or if needed, seeking help from a mental health professional or life coach, Moore says.

She adds that when it comes to stress, your best offence is defence.

“Once you’re feeling highly stressed it’s much harder to practise stress reduction techniques. Get to know the early stages of stress or your ‘tells’ so you can nip it in the bud. Some people begin to bite their lip at the first stages of the stress response cycle, others begin fidgeting or wringing their hands, while others notice themselves holding their breath. Get to know these signs so you can take a few deep breaths, feel your feet on the ground and proceed more calmly into your day.”