Originally published for Health by Maggie O'Neill
Stress is unavoidable. Yes, you can keep your stress levels relatively low through practicing mindfulness and working out regularly, among other things, but living a completely stress-free life is, unfortunately, impossible.
“Sure, there are logistical ways to cut stress out of our lives, but we cannot do that for all stressful events or we would have nothing left,” says Shannon O’Neill, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
Because stress in general induces all kinds of emotions—panic, sadness, excitement—most stress can be classified as “emotional stress,” or stress that activates your emotions, according to Adam Borland, Psy.D., a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. Emotional stress, too, can trigger physical manifestations of stress, like increased heart rate, rapid breathing and digestive issues.
The key to managing stress—both emotional and physical manifestations of it—is recognizing your own triggers, and then identifying coping mechanisms. Here, experts dig into the signs of emotional stress to keep on your radar, and what you can do once you recognize them.
What are the symptoms of emotional stress?
Emotional stress affects everyone differently, so it’s hard to nail down specific signs and symptoms. According to Borland, two major symptoms of emotional stress include poor concentration skills and difficulty remembering things. Increased feelings of anxiety, anger, grief or sadness may also be signs that your stress levels are a bit higher than usual, O’Neill says.
But while emotional stress mainly manifests mentally at first, your physical health can eventually be impacted as well, O’Neill says. “Stress can greatly impact physical health, causing someone to feel fatigued or run-down,” she explains. O’Neill lists altered eating habits, chronic headaches, muscle tension, gastrointestinal issues and even disrupted sleeping patterns as other signs.
The length of time people are affected by emotional stress can also differ. “Depending on the trigger, emotional stress can be acute, episodic or prolonged,” O’Neill says. Acute emotional stress, for instance, could be triggered by waiting for critical lab results, whereas prolonged emotional stress could be caused by a hostile work environment. Episodic emotional stress can occur “every time the individual is within a specific situation,” O’Neill adds, citing repeated encounters with a specific co-worker as an example.
How can you cope with emotional stress?
The good news is that there are many ways to manage emotional stress if it begins to overwhelm you. Your first step: Think about the healthy habits you already know you should be practicing. “Continue to meet your basic needs: drink water, eat healthy, move your body, get some sleep,” O’Neill says. “Listen to your body and give it what it needs.”
Beyond that, it’s important to stay aware of what might cause emotional stress for you, specifically. While instances of emotional stress can be unexpected, it certainly won’t hurt to keep in mind the recurring scenarios that can potentially cause it. “Although we’re not always aware of what will trigger emotional stress, it can be helpful to look out for warning signs, such as strong emotional reactions,” O’Neill explains. (Think: That initial drop in your stomach when you were called on in school.) When you’re aware of what situations might potentially cause emotional stress, it can be easier to manage the side effects of it.
Additionally, Borland advises checking out some of the tried-and-true practices known to relieve stress. “I often recommend mindfulness training [and] really checking in with your body,” he explains. Borland recommends asking yourself, “Where am I holding my tension?” to try and locate which parts of the body feel tight, then focusing on those specific body parts and imagining releasing the tension there.
Deep-breathing exercises can also help relieve symptoms of emotional stress, as can monitoring your caffeine and alcohol intake, since both of those substances can affect your mood. And, as always, if emotional stress becomes unmanageable, it’s best to seek professional help from a psychologist or licensed social worker, who can help with further coping strategies.
While it’s totally reasonable to feel slammed by emotional stress at times, if you find yourself in that position, try to remember all the small but effective tools you have on your side—everything from deep breathing to getting a full eight hours of sleep—and to remember that you’re not alone in dealing with these intense emotions. “Stress is inevitable, but [it] can be manageable,” O’Neill says.
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