Of course, there are many ways that stress, anxiety, and overwhelm can manifest—for example, poor sleep, appetite issues, comfort/binge eating, inability to concentrate, etc. However, some lesser-known ones that you may be unaware of are equally harmful. In this article, I’ll outline three in particular which delegates and clients are most surprised by:
1. Aches and pains
Aches and pains, physical ailments that, after investigation by healthcare professionals, seemingly have no underlying cause and take longer than anticipated to overcome, for example:
- General aches and pains
- Coughs/chest infections
- Recurring UTIs
- Lethargy/unexplained tiredness
I started to investigate psychosomatic illnesses following prolonged back trouble in Autumn 2020. I completely threw my back out, and it was so bad that I struggled even to stand. I still had to work (taking sick time working for myself wasn’t an option), so I had to wear a back brace when I was client-facing. After 12 weeks, 3 physios, 1 chiropractor, 1 MRI scan and numerous Zoom calls with doctors and consultants. I was still in chronic pain.
In desperation, I sought recommendations from friends and ended up seeing a very competent physio who said, “Apart from COVID (we all have that), what stress have you had this year that you haven’t dealt with? You’re extremely fit (up until my back went, I’d been cycling c150 miles a week), and in someone like you, you would expect this injury to have cleared up within a maximum of six weeks.’I knew immediately what she was referring to. There was something that I hadn’t dealt with that happened the week before we went into the first lockdown. At that time, keeping my business afloat was more important than my personal issues, so I put that ‘problem’ in a metaphorical box. Luckily, I have the tools to deal with hidden stress, so I was almost back to ‘normal’, miraculously within three days of my appointment.
Since then, as I’ve been teaching this topic in workshops and my one to one sessions, I’ve been blown away by how many people are suffering the physical symptoms of stress but have no idea that it’s related. Awareness is critical. Once we know the root cause, it’s much easier to deal with and overcome.
(Disclaimer: I strongly advise that you seek professional medical advice for any ongoing symptoms, especially if they’ve been ongoing for three days or more. This article is not meant to replace professional advice or support from a clinical or healthcare professional.)
2. EXCESSIVE ‘Numbing’ Activities
Numbing activities are pastimes that consume both our thoughts and emotions to such an extent that we don’t have the capacity to think or feel the stressful things in our lives. They actually fall under the category of FREEZE in the stress response (flight, fight, freeze).
A bit of numbing can be good for us; it gives our brains a well-earned break (as long as we don’t do it with drugs!). However, if such behaviours start to become all-consuming at the expense of other more productive activities such as talking to friends, exercising, hobbies, etc. In that case, they could be a red flag.
Examples include EXCESSIVE:
- Social media scrolling
- Netflix binging
- Online gaming
- Shopping (online or in-person)
If you recognise that you use activities 1-4 for numbing purposes, completing a time audit is a great way to analyse where you’re spending your time critically. You simply write down how much time you spend doing these things each day. You may surprise yourself (and not in a good way!). I also recommend putting timers on your phone to alert you when it’s time to stop and do something more productive. You might want to consider coming off social media or online gaming altogether for a while.
If you are masking your emotions with other potentially more destructive behaviours or substances and are struggling to overcome them, I strongly urge you to speak to someone. More help is available than ever before, for example, AA, NA, Gamblers Anonymous, Mind and the NHS in Britain. They are all completely confidential and will not judge you or your circumstances.
3. Inability to Regulate Emotions
If you’re struggling to manage your emotions, there’s a good chance that you may be in fight, flight, freeze mode. If you’ve been feeling stressed for a while, your nervous system may have become dysregulated, making it hard to control your feelings; that’s when we can enter survival mode.
I have written about this previously (click here to read, ‘Is your job causing survival mode’), but I think it’s important to mention it again. Fight, flight, freeze doesn’t just present itself as the need to fight, run away or freeze on the spot. In reality, the stress response can look like:
Aggressive, angry, hostile, looking for an argument, snappy, sarcastic, low tolerance levels, micromanaging, belligerence, nitpicking, resentment, judgement, impatience, frustration, etc.
Avoiding people, being late for meetings/functions, physically removing yourself, feeling overly anxious and having the urge to get away, cancelling plans/meetings (especially last-minute), taking sick leave when you can’t face work (could also be ‘freeze’), etc.
Procrastinating, pity partying/self-pity, doing less important tasks, physically hiding (in your car, kitchen, restroom, etc.), using avoidance/numbing behaviours (see above), sleeping too much, inertia, overeating/comfort eating, etc.
Of course, it’s entirely normal to experience all of these behaviours from time to time. However, it could be a red flag if you recognise that you’re spending a disproportionate amount of time in one or more of these ‘states’.
Many of us have lived in these states for so long that we don’t necessarily recognise that they aren’t normal and that we are harming our physical and mental health by not dealing with the underlying causes. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, research has proven that 95% of our thoughts each day are the same as the day before, so it stands to reason that if our thoughts are automatic, our behaviours are too.
In upcoming articles, I’ll discuss how we can manage stress, anxiety and overwhelm using simple tools that can have a huge impact. However, all change begins with awareness and willingness to do something different. If you don’t do anything different, nothing will change:
Always do what you’ve always done; always get what you’ve always got!
If there are any topics that you’d like me to cover in upcoming articles, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact me a firstname.lastname@example.org.