By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
It certainly has been a challenging couple of years, with ongoing stresses living through the pandemic. I find it interesting that everyone I speak to has had different stresses, but it does seem that almost universally, the load of stress has been significantly higher than it was previously.
We are very good at coping with stress to a degree – our bodies can mobilize with extra energy, better focus and an ability to do things we would normally find difficult. When stress goes on over months and then years, our stress coping can break down.
Years ago, I took a stress coaching course because I had recognized then that the root of so many health struggles was this prolonged high stress. Here is a questionnaire to help you identify if you’re experiencing too much stress right now. Answer the questions, tally your score and then I’ll provide some ideas about how to cope and deal with the ongoing stresses.
Assessing your current stress level
An important first step in getting better control of your stress is to recognize how high your personal stress level usually is. To do this, answer the following 20 questions (as honestly as you can) about how you have felt during the past month.
After each statement, write down a number from “0” to “3”, showing how frequently you have experienced the feelings described in that statement.
0 = haven’t had this feeling at all
1 = occasionally
2 = frequently
3 = constantly or nearly constantly
How frequently have you had this feeling or experience in the past 2 months?
- I felt tense, nervous, anxious or upset. Frequency= _____.
- I felt sad, depressed, down in the dumps or hopeless. Frequency= _____.
- I felt low energy, exhausted, tired or unable to get things done. Frequency= _____.
- I couldn’t turn my thoughts off long enough — at nights or on weekends — to feel relaxed and refreshed the next day. Frequency= _____.
- I found myself unable to sit still, and had to move around constantly. Frequency= _____.
- I was so upset that I thought I was losing control of my feelings. Frequency= _____.
- I have been preoccupied with a serious personal problem. Frequency= _____.
- I have been in unpleasant situations that I felt helpless to do anything about. Frequency= _____.
- I felt tired in the morning, no energy to get up or to face daily activities. Frequency= _____.
- I have had problems in concentrating on things, or remembering things. Frequency= _____.
- I feel I could be doing a great deal more to take care of myself and keep healthy. Frequency= _____.
- I don’t feel I have much control over the events in my life. Frequency= _____.
- No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to accomplish what I want. Frequency= _____.
- I have been continually frustrated in my life by bad breaks and by people who are not living up to my expectations. Frequency= _____.
- My standards are very high for my own activities. Frequency= _____.
- When something difficult or stressful is coming up, I find myself thinking about all the ways things can go poorly for me. Frequency= _____.
- My life is empty and has no meaning. Frequency= _____.
- I often run into problems I can’t solve. Frequency= _____.
- I am not able to give what I would like to the people closest to me. Frequency= _____.
- I have not felt close to or accepted by the people around me — both family and friends. Frequency= _____.
If your score was 16 or below, you are experiencing a statistically normal stress level.
If, however, your score above 16, there are early warning signs that you are experiencing an elevated stress level ….. you are paying too high a stress price tag in your situation.
Tools and solutions for stress
I suspect that most of us have identified with experiencing too much stress right now – it has been an incredibly challenging time. My role here is in helping you identify your stress, and especially the impact it is having on your health and well-being. If you are under very high ongoing stress, you likely also need some support with your emotional health with a qualified therapist. Again, in this article and in my practice, I will be focusing on the physiological components first. Here are some tools you can begin with right now:
(1) Maintaining your health foundations:
As with almost all health issues, creating a strong foundation with nutrition, sleep and movement are key to creating more physiological resilience with stress. To simplify, the main aims here are eating balanced, nourishing meals at regular intervals, getting to bed on time and allowing for at least 7 hours of sleep, and including daily movement. Obviously each of these points can be personalized to you, and may also include avoiding food sensitivities, having a bedtime routine to improve your sleep, and keeping exercise in a moderate intensity to prevent over-training stress. As simple as the foundations are, they are even more important when stress is high.
(2) Hormone testing:
I am a big fan of testing, as we can learn so much about what the body is doing. For example, did you know that with prolonged high stress, some people’s bodies go into a high cortisol state, and others deliberately bring it down very low? Both are maladapted stress states, and both present with anxiety, overwhelm and fatigue, but we can support the body more precisely if we know what the cortisol response is. All hormonal systems are impacted by stress, including your ovarian / reproductive hormones, blood sugar regulation and thyroid function. That’s why you may be experiencing a change in your menstrual cycle (irregularities / heavier or lighter flow), symptoms that look like hypothyroidism (feeling cold, fatigue, weight gain, dry skin), or more difficulty managing your blood sugar levels between meals. Testing and addressing the entire hormonal system can help you to feel better during periods of high stress, and also to recognize your system gets out of balance.
(3) Prioritizing sleep, rest and downtime:
One of the simplest things to do in response to ongoing high stress is to allow more time for rest. Rest is the best way to get your body out of a stress response, and regulate the cortisol, adrenalin and norepinephrine. I know when you’re anxious and overwhelmed, this does not come naturally, but let this article be a reminder to build in extra downtime right now and make sure you’re getting to bed early enough to have a minimum of 7 hours of sleep each night.
(4) Connection and community:
And if we have learned anything over the past 2 years, it is the importance of community and connection. Even if your community has shrunk and you’re having to meet people outside for walks or online, it is extremely important to stay connected. Our nervous systems actually regulate in response to other people, and with too much isolation it is common to develop mental and physiological anxiety.
(5) Letting go of stresses you can:
I always talk about ‘stacking stresses’ because it is rarely one stress that is the entire problem. There are some stresses you may not be able to change or control, but there are many others that you can. Here are some of the stresses that stack up each day – which ones can you change right now to reduce your stress load?
- rushing around
- sleep deprivation (less than 7 hours of sleep per night)
- excessive exercise
- sedentary lifestyle
- low blood sugar / skipping meals
- nutritional deficiencies (especially iron, vitamin B12 and vitamin D)
- poor diet – not enough veggies or not enough protein
- food sensitivities, allergies, intolerances
- feeling isolated
If you are currently struggling with a high stress load right now, please reach out for support. We can work on your health foundations, prioritize good quality sleep and regular movement, and address your hormones directly. I know it’s a challenging time, but supporting your physical body during times of stress creates a lot more resilience emotionally too.