Do you ever find yourself feeling impatient and irritated, snapping at people for no particular reason? You wake up tired most mornings, with a racing mind, tense shoulders and aching back. There’s no time to really pay attention to those feelings, because you have to juggle work, family, your health and other obligations.
Your body sends you messages about its internal conditions all the time. Sometimes it offers subtle clues about what it needs in the form of a yawn, food cravings or a gut feeling. Other times, your body signals distress through skin rash, chest pain or unintentional weight loss.
But in today’s fast-paced world, it’s much easier to tune out than it is to tune in. With the non-stop activity going on around us, we tend to focus outwardly and ignore what’s happening inside of us. But when you don’t listen to what your body’s whispering, the distress slowly builds, until your body start screaming for your attention.
So what is your body trying to tell you?
When you experience unpleasant physical sensations, your body is telling you it’s out of balance in some way. You might get a mild headache when you spend all day indoors behind a screen. Or you suffer from abdominal pains when you’re eating foods that aren’t good for you.
These are common but often not very serious signs of distress. However, when the internal problems build up over time, you need to pay attention to these warning signs before your health suffers. Generally speaking, your body’s signals can mean two things:
- Your body is sending you early warning signs of illness. Blood in your urine or stool, unintentional weight loss or lumps on your skin are signals you should never ignore. Please consult your doctor when you’re experiencing inexplicable, frequent and/or persisting symptoms.
- Your body is telling you you’re pushing yourself too far. For too long, you’ve taken on more than you can carry and now you’re running low on energy and resources. You need to take a break, rest and make changes before your body and mind reach their breaking point.
This blog post does not go into the early warning signs of potential illness. I’m not a medical doctor, and most symptoms can be attributed to a variety of health problems. Instead, this article will focus on the warning signs of stress, overwhelm and burnout.
How to Recognize the Warning Signs of Overload
It isn’t always easy to recognize the signs that you’re running on empty and you’re heading for the danger zone. Maybe you think feeling under pressure all the time is just a part of life, or you find it difficult to turn inwards with the outside world demanding all your attention.
It also isn’t possible to deduct the cause of every physical sensation or emotional message your body’s sending you. After all, there are countless of factors that play a role in our overall wellbeing. Your bodily processes, thought patterns, emotions, lifestyle plus your social and physical environment all contribute to your level of health and happiness.
What’s more, everyone experiences different warning signs. You may not be lying awake at night worrying, but perhaps your stomach aches whenever you work too many hours.
Having said that, if you experience the following problems, they might be warning signs of stress overload and burnout:
- Feeling overwhelmed, like it’s all to much and you could burst into tears at any time;
- Being easily irritated, frustrated or wired;
- A depressed mood, excessive worrying or feeling anxious;
- Feeling tired an worn out, the kind of fatigue that doesn’t go away after one good night’s sleep;
- Having tense shoulders, aching back or stiff neck;
- Flare-up of (old) symptoms;
- Experiencing forgetfulness, difficulty focusing or brain fog;
- Being exhausted but not able to fall asleep at night;
- Having difficulties with digestion or inexplicable stomach aches;
- Lack of appetite or the opposite: craving food all the time;
- Relying on unhealthy habits like caffeinating, sugar-rich snacks, smoking or excessive drinking to get through the day.
Does this sound familiar? How can you start paying more attention to signals of overload in our always-on, always-connected world?
How you can listen to your body and recognize the warning signs in time
Listening to your body as you go about your day simply means you regularly pause to feel. Instead of only listening to your thoughts, plans and worries, do a quick body scan. How are you feeling in your body? Are you holding any tension somewhere? Do my energy level or posture reveal any signs of fatigue, stress or emotional overwhelm? Is there anything demanding your attention and care?
You can do this simple body scan anytime anywhere. Tune into your body’s sensations while you’re making a cup of tea, brushing your teeth or waiting in line. Make a habit of finding pockets of quiet time to listen to your body. If you find it difficult to ‘be in your body’ because you live in your mind, take up more physical activities. Especially activities that also stimulate your senses, like gardening, cooking or painting, can help you learn to focus on bodily sensations.
And once you’ve learned how to listen to your body, you can start learning from it.
What to Do Next: How to Act on Warning Signs
The first thing to do when you’re stressed, worn out and overwhelmed is to pause. Take a break, even if it’s only for a minute. Stop pushing through and slow down so you can listen to what your body’s trying to tell you. Accept whatever you are feeling, don’t fight it. Of course you can crash on the couch with a good book and a chocolate bar when you feel like it. But after that, try to these ways to really pause:
- Unplug. Get rid of distractions and find a place of quietude so you can turn inwards.
- Breathe. Just focus on breathing in through your nose, feeling your belly expand, before you slowly breathe out again. Follow your natural rhythm, no need to force anything. Let go of tension in your body each time you exhale. When your mind wanders off, simply return your attention to your breath.
- Relax. Release tension from your body and calm your mind by doing a mindfulness exercise, working with your hands or taking a warm bath.
“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for anhour.” – Zen Proverb.
2. Ask yourself: What do you need?
If you’re wired and worn out, ask yourself what you need right now. Don’t just listen to your mind telling you have to finish that project before midnight, but tune into your body.
Often, the first step to handle physical and mental overload is taking real rest. Binge-watching your favorite series sure is entertaining, but it doesn’t exactly activate your body’s natural relaxation response. So make time for activities that slow down your breathing, release tension from your body and quiet your mind, like restorative yoga or mindfulness.
But maybe you need something completely different, like a long walk in nature, a hug from your spouse or a warming bowl of food. Listen closely to what your body’s saying and practice the self-care you need.
And if what you need is a checkup from your doctor or help from a medical professional, please consult your treating physician!
3. Analyze the situation.
Now let’s get to the root of the problem. What’s causing your stress, overwhelm and fatigue?
Consider all the factors that impact your health and happiness:
- Physical: Are you getting enough sleep? Do you eat a balanced diet containing all nutrients? Are you moving your body in a way that’s right for you? Do you have a diagnosed illness that’s causing your current distress?
- Mental: Do you tend to worry or have negative thought patterns? Could you be overstimulated? How does your mental diet – all the media and information your absorb – make you feel?
- Emotional: Are you worried about your health, relationship or financial problems? Or do you dread going into work each morning? Does your mood fluctuate much during the day or do you feel apathy?
- The world around you: How’s the balance between your work and family life? Are you spending much time with people who support you or who weigh you down? Do you tend to overcommit? Do you live in a healthy home and neighborhood?
How does it feel? How do you want it all to feel?
4. Come up with ideas to improve your situation.
Now that you’ve analyzed the causes of your stress overload or burnout, there are two important questions to ask yourself:
- How can you make your load lighter and/or easier to carry? See if you can delete, delegate or defer certain work tasks. Or perhaps you can (temporarily) outsource energy-consuming chores like cleaning or grocery shopping. Whatever helps you take some things off your plate.
- How can you improve your own strengths and coping abilities? It’s easier to cope with stress and overwhelm when your body and mind are strong. So don’t skip on self-care when you need it the most, because it feels like there’s no time for that. Make getting enough sleep your priority, try to eat healthily, move your body gently (preferably outdoors) and do things that lift your spirits.
Now make an extensive list of solutions for your problems. Don’t worry about whether it’s possible or not at first. Thinking outside the box is a good thing. Next, pick a few solutions that could work for you. Remember, there’s no such thing as a magic cure, no matter how hard you search for it. Making tiny improvements can still lead to big results over time. Finally, set priories. There’s not enough time and energy to do everything yourself. So don’t just come up with what you can do – also list the things that you will no longer do.
5. Make a plan and ask for help.
When you’ve selected ways to tackle the roots of your problem, break the solutions down in actionable chunks and make a concrete plan. Don’t just say you’ll “do yoga twice a week” to calm your nerves, but specify when and where you’ll practice certain yoga poses.
As you create your plan, build in enough time for rest and doing things that help you regain your energy. Pacing beats cycles of push-and-crash, so manage your energy wisely to get meaningful things done.
And remember it’s ok to ask for practical help, emotional support or advice. You don’t have to do it alone.
6. Prevent stress and overload.
Although we can’t stop bad things from happening, there are things you can do to prevent stress and fatigue to build up over time:
- Tune into your body every day to see what it’s trying to tell you. Slow down and build moments of quietude into your schedule. It’s much harder to listen to what’s going on inside of you when there’s noise around you.
- Examine your thoughts. Are they supportive and constructive?
- Start a self-care practice that pays attention to both your physical health and your emotional wellbeing.
- Watch out for warning signs so you can act before you head into the danger zone. Create a ‘coping box’ or list with things to do when you notice the first signs of getting worn out and overwhelmed again.
What are typical warning signs that you’re getting stressed and burned out? Are you good at recognizing what your body’s trying to tell you?
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