Can You Be Stressed Without Knowing It?

Photo: Tim Gibson for Well+Good
Find me a person who isn't stressed and I will also point to the pigs flying by the window because that just feels completely impossible. Case in point? In a 2018 survey of Well+Good readers, 95 percent reported feeling stressed.

Work and finances topped the list of stressors, while many other people said that their interpersonal relationships were a major source of stress and anxiety. But what about the times when nothing is ostensibly wrong, and you still find yourself lying awake at night or trying to shake off a nagging feeling that something is off? Is it possible that your body could be stressed, even if you don’t feel stressed out?

When fight-or-flight goes haywire

If you're asking yourself, "Am I stressed?" despite not having anything concrete to be stressed about, blame that super fun feeling on evolution. When your brain sees something it perceives to be a threat, your amygdala —the part of the brain associated with emotions—takes over, “cutting off communication to the frontal part of your cortex, which is where the rational coping thoughts would be,” says David Austern, PsyD., clinical assistant professor at New York University’s department of psychiatry. The result is that fight-or-flight response: a racing heart, sweaty palms, dizziness, that feeling that your stomach just dropped to the ground. These are all your body’s signs to stop thinking and start running.

A thousand years ago, this was a helpful reflex; nowadays, not as much. Unfortunately, our brains haven’t caught up to the 21st century, which is why your body treats minor stressors (being late to work) the same way it would a major physical threat (say, being chased by a bear). Elizabeth Hale-Rose, LCSW, CPC, at the Connecticut-based Privé-Swiss Wellness Center, sums it up this way: “Our nervous system has evolved to keep us alive, not serene.” (This faulty fight-or-flight mechanism works similarly with anxiety, too.)

Hale-Rose adds that that technology and the Internet are “multiplying our choices and distractions on a daily basis.” There are a million things competing for our attention, and it’s exhausting to keep up with them—which is why she says it’s not uncommon to come home from work feeling completely drained and on edge after a long day of staring unblinkingly at your computer screen. All of this can contribute to feeling stressed even though it seems like there's nothing that you should actually be stressed about.

How to talk your brain out of the stress loop

So how to deal with this "I'm stressed but not stressed" nightmare? One practice Dr. Austern recommends is what’s called “de-catastrophizing.” “Our brains have been trained and evolved to think negatively, so in these moments when the risk of something is really not catastrophic, it’s good to remind ourselves that ‘Hey, the odds of this happening are probably much lower than I think,’” he says. For example, when your car is stalled, and it’s already 9:15 a.m. (and your big meeting is at 9:30 a.m.), it’s easy to spiral out of control. (You know, the Oh my God, my boss will literally kill me if I miss this meeting! kind of thoughts.) But taking a step back to really think through possible outcomes can help you put things in perspective, Dr. Austern says. Sure, your boss might be a little annoyed that you’re late to a meeting—she might even say something to you about it—but is it *that* likely that she’ll fire you for being late to work once? Probably not.

Another stress-busting trick: deep breathing exercises, which “signal to your body that it’s okay to relax," says Hale-Rose. Try inhaling for a count of three and exhaling for a count of six. (If your stress levels are keeping you from falling asleep, try the 4-7-8 technique.)

Lastly, Hale-Rose recommends starting a gratitude practice of some kind (whether it's writing down what you're grateful for in the mornings or repeating affirmations when you're stressed) which research suggests can reduce anxiety and boost happiness. “Any time we are being active in our own care we feel more empowered, which can increase optimism and happiness,” she says. “That in turn helps us be more resilient in the face of stress.” Even the sneaky kind that doesn't seem to have a clear cause.

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