Life will always come with stress – that’s something we can’t avoid. Our cars break down, our kids get sick, we feel pressure at work, we have health scares, and to top it all off, the laundry never seems to stop. This is the kind of stress we’ve been conditioned to handle since we were children. But when stress becomes a way of life rather than the occasional event, is it still normal? When do we say “this is too much”? It might be sooner than you think.
At SUN Behavioral Delaware, we want you to know you are not powerless against the symptoms of stress and anxiety. If stress is beginning to interfere with your life or keep you from your goals, there are healthy solutions for relief.
When to See a Doctor for Stress and Anxiety
First and foremost, if your anxiety is concerning you enough to wonder if it’s healthy, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor. It’s normal to have bouts of stress and anxiety but if you’re experiencing it more than usual, there could be a simple medical explanation. An ongoing dialogue with your primary care physician is always a good thing when it comes to your health.
If you’re not ready to make an appointment just yet, let’s talk about some warning signs that might indicate it’s time to see a doctor.
- Your stress and anxiety are making it difficult to sleep. Quality sleep is imperative to mental and physical health. You may notice “brain fog” on the days when you haven’t slept well the night before, but that’s not the only part of your body that’s affected by lack of sleep. Sleep works to keep our weight and emotions under control. It also plays a key role in brain function. Without it, we’re prone to various cancers, accidents, and illnesses. If you find that you’ve been lying awake at night with racing thoughts or if you can’t sleep because you can’t get your body to relax – it is a problem. A night or two is one thing, but if it has been going on for a week or more, it’s time to speak with your doctor about what your next steps are.
- Your stress and anxiety are physically affecting you. Stress is never “all in your head.” When we feel stress, “fight or flight” hormones are released into our bloodstream (cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine, etc.), preparing us to “fight”. The body senses danger and it reacts by elevating our heart rate, downgrading our metabolic processes, elevating our blood pressure, and boosting our energy. This shows up as a variety of symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, tremors, trouble breathing, and more. If you’ve recognized some of these symptoms lately and you’re unsure of the cause, it could be anxiety or stress. Sometimes we feel these physical effects without making the connection that they could be related to our thoughts.
- Your stress and anxiety are causing you to snap at others. Irritability is a sure sign of stress, and when we’re overwhelmed, it can be harder to control. Irritability can turn into anger, which isn’t good for our relationships. When you’re going through a stressful time, you need the support of your family and friends. Your stress shouldn’t keep you from connecting with them. If it does, it could mean it’s time to see your doctor. Your stress and anxiety are causing you to miss school or work. This one may seem like a no-brainer, but here’s the hitch: we’re not always aware that anxiety is the reason why we’re missing work or school. We may think we’re just sick or tired when in reality, it's our stress response that’s making us feel that way. Remember we talked about how stress can impact our sleep and other aspects of physical health? If you’re calling in sick to work a lot these days, or if you’re missing classes and skimping on homework, it might be time to consider whether or not stress is the culprit. Stress can also cause feelings of being deeply overwhelmed or depressed, which can interfere with motivation. If you’re missing work or school because you “just don’t feel like going” – that can also be due to uncontrolled stress and anxiety.
- Your stress and anxiety are causing you to self-medicate through alcohol or drugs. If you’re drinking more than usual lately, or if you find you can’t get through the day without drugs or alcohol, it could be because you’re self-medicating. Untreated anxiety can cause us to feel physically and emotionally overwhelmed. It’s common to feel the need to relax – especially if you haven’t done so in a while. Unfortunately, while alcohol or other substances may seem like an easy fix at the time, they’re not meant to be a long-term solution for relief. Using them can cause dependency or addiction, not to mention a host of new physical and emotional issues.
Symptoms of Stress - Is Anxiety Hurting You Physically?
As mentioned earlier, if you suspect that your stress is causing physical issues, it’s probably time to see your doctor. Let’s talk about some of the physical symptoms of high stress or anxiety:
- Headaches or migraines
- Gastrointestinal distress (like diarrhea or IBS)
- Heart palpitations (your heart is skipping beats or you can feel it through your chest)
- Numbness in the hands or mouth (especially when experiencing fear)
- Muscle twitching
- Feeling light-headed or dizzy
- Feeling a tightness in your chest or like it’s hard to breathe
- Aches and pains in your back or other parts of your body
Things Doctors Look at When Checking Your Stress and Anxiety Levels
Your doctor will likely start off with a physical exam to rule out any other medical causes for your anxiety. Vitamin deficiencies, heart and thyroid disorders, viruses, and even hormones can mimic anxiety or depression. Next, they’ll ask you some questions about your stress and anxiety. They will ask about what’s going on in your life to cause the stress and how it’s impacting you on a physical and emotional level. They’ll also want to know whether or not you have a family history of mood disorders like depression or anxiety.
Doctors will often look for physical indicators to determine the severity of your anxiety. It’s important that you give your doctor as much detail as possible so they can properly diagnose you. They’ll work with you to find out what’s causing your distress, and that will help them form a treatment plan.
It can feel uncomfortable to speak with your doctor about what’s causing your stress, especially if you’ve never done that before. Rest assured - they’re not there to pass judgment on you. Your doctor is there to help.
What is Considered a Normal Level of Stress and Anxiety?
If you’re not noticing any physical issues due to stress, that doesn’t mean that your stress levels are “normal.” You may still need to see a doctor if you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Stress affects not just the way you think and feel, but your decision-making abilities and behaviors as well. Here are some emotional signs that indicate you may need medical care:
- You don’t want to spend time with others (you’re isolating)
- You’re feeling restless
- You’re having difficulty concentrating
- You’re making “bad” decisions, or decisions you wouldn’t usually make
- You’re noticing lapses in your memory
- You’re suddenly having a hard time making decisions
- You’re finding it impossible to relax
- Your thoughts are consumed with constant worry
“Normal” levels of stress and anxiety would mean that your feelings are not interfering with your life. You’re sleeping on a relatively normal schedule, you’re eating normally, and you’re still finding a healthy work/life balance. If you’re feeling “normal” stress, you should be able to turn to a healthy coping mechanism to feel better, like exercise, meditation, or talking to a friend. “Normal” stress and anxiety simply mean that you’re functioning as usual, even when you’re experiencing these feelings.
Getting Help for Your Stress and Anxiety
If medical conditions are ruled out, it may be time to see a mental health specialist. A psychiatrist and various mental health professionals can diagnose and treat anxiety disorders.
Diagnosis at SUN Behavioral Health Delaware includes a psychological evaluation and use of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria. Treatment for stress and anxiety can include psychotherapy and/or medications. A common example of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps people develop new thought patterns, which help change behaviors and reactions.
Need Help Dealing With Stress And Anxiety?
At SUN, we can help you manage your stress, find and create healthy coping mechanisms, and live a life that isn’t hindered by your anxiety. To learn more about treatment for stress and anxiety, contact us today at 614-706-2786.
Frequently Asked Questions
Chronic stress is the constant feeling of impending doom or “pressure” that lasts for a long period of time.
Can anxiety cause diarrhea?
Anxiety can cause gastrointestinal distress, which includes nausea, diarrhea, and IBS.
Should I see a doctor if I get pains in my stomach when I am stressed?
If you are noticing any physical side effects as a result of stress, including stomach pain, it may be time to see your doctor.