I’m declaring the coming year as the year of extreme self-care, and I hope you’ll join me.

The other day I was walking my dog Zoey, and while she was sniffing in the bushes I took a second to relax and take a deep breath.

And I suddenly realized that I felt … better? more awake? calmer? … than I’d felt in a long time (maybe even a decade). Even though it was barely 0-degrees Fahrenheit outside.

I’m not necessarily talking physically better – that’s another story for another day – but just “better” in general.

When You Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up

You might be able to relate to this: I didn’t realize how bad I felt until I started to feel better. Because when you’re in the midst of of a stressful situation, you can often overlook the signs you’re too stressed.

And I don’t want to jinx anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few months I’m going to look back on NOW and think, “Wow, you still felt like crud when you wrote that blog post.” 

But that’s OK, because to pull out that cliched quote from Émile Coué, “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”

It’s All Because of Stress

Stress can be a really good thing – it’s generally caused by anything that puts pressure on us or forces us out of our comfort zone. It can help us reach new levels of achievement and growth.

You’ve heard that saying, “Pressure makes diamonds,” right? 

That “good” pressure can come from competing in a sporting event, the birth of a new baby, or a job promotion. 

But often, stress can be negative. It can be from work demands, the death of a loved one, relationship issues, or financial difficulties.

The thing is, your body can’t tell the difference between good stress and bad stress. It just senses all of it as “stress.” And it responds as such (more on that in bit).

And thanks to modern technology – where we’re available 24/7 because of our smartphones – we can heap more stress onto the pile. A study has shown that the more we use or respond to our phone for personal (not business) reasons, the more stressed we are. (1)

And while we’re busy handling all those stressful demands, we often shelve our personal needs.  Which then can lead to stress overload.

How I Became Wayyyy too Stressed

When it comes to stress and self-care, I’ve survived a long trial by fire (yes, that’s a little dramatic) and I’ve learned a thing or two.

And I know firsthand what can happen when you let your own needs fall to the bottom of the list. In fact, a part of me used to take pride in being able to “soldier on” in the face of never-ending crises.

My story might be a little extreme, and no worries, I won’t get into all the details right now. (But honestly, the story would make an awesome Lifetime movie, including premonitions, affairs, international travel, and lots of dramatic telephone slamming and yelling.) 

Basically, I was living overseas with my then-husband when my mom got sick with terminal cancer and I ended up moving back to the States to take care of her. 

By the time the cancer was discovered, we were in a crisis mode that pretty much pummeled us nonstop for almost two years. I had no local support network, but everyone around me (except her docs and nurses) had an opinion about what I should do, and it felt like what I was doing would never measure up.

There was one spell where I was taking my heavily medicated mom back and forth daily to the chemo and radiation center, trying to help my not-yet-ex deal with a health issue while he was still overseas (even trying to find a doctor for him in the non-English-speaking town he was in), giving my mom’s cat twice-daily shots for diabetes (and boy, did that cat ever hate me), and helping with some other huge family crises.

Plus, my then-husband was furious with me for not “knowing where my place was” and not returning to our home.

I felt like a failure most (all?) of the time. 

And then, of course, there was eventually a transcontinental divorce to deal with. And the death of my mother, who had been the rock in my life until she got sick. (Thank God I kept a lot of notes and journaled extensively during that period, so I can look back and see that despite criticisms, I actually did a pretty good job taking care of her, but there’s always that nagging guilt.) 

Anyway, not surprisingly, all of that was followed by a series of bad-for-me decisions because I was in NO state to make decisions.

And all of that was followed by a decade’s worth of fallout.

Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back now, I can see that at least some of that fallout might have been averted if I paid attention to the classic signs you’re too stressed. I needed to take some time and engage in some serious stress management.

My Story is Not Unique

Here’s the thing: I know a lot of people have been through similar stressful scenarios. The details might be different, but the outcome is the same. 

It happens to those of us who are thrust into caregiver situations (because of other issues in my family, I have been a caregiver since pretty much the day I was born). 

Or maybe you’re in a dicey work or business situation. Perhaps you have two preschoolers at home, a full-time job, and you’re trying to keep a household together all by yourself. Maybe you’re going through a messy divorce. Maybe you grew up in an unstable home, filled with crises, and you only know how to live in a stressful environment.

I can’t even count how many clients I have worked with who have forgotten (or never knew) they deserve and need to take the time to care for themselves, to de-stress and chill out.

Why does this matter? 

Because eventually, your body will start to wear your stress with aches and pains, injuries, and sometimes even illness. Yes, you’ll go through a period when you feel impervious … but it’ll catch up, trust me. 

Think that taking time to care for yourself is for the selfish and weak?

So wrong. Even Mother Theresa took several hours in the middle of the day for “internal time” to pray, meditate and reflect. (2) And for the past 40 years, Clint Eastwood has included meditation in his everyday life. (3)

Wondering if you’re too stressed? Check out this list.

Top 10 Signs You’re Too Stressed

We all respond to stressful situations differently, and this is not a comprehensive list of signs you’re too stressed. Chances are if you’re even reading this post, you have a fair amount of stress going on in our life. 

1. You are Exhausted

We all get tired – or even overtired – from time to time. But when it goes on for a while, you can become downright exhausted.

Pushing through fatigue can be like a badge of honor. That’s why God invented coffee right?

Wrong. Well, maybe. But if you absolutely need coffee – or Mountain Dew, Red Bull, or whatever – to get through the day, it’s a different story.

When you’re exhausted, your stress hormones – like cortisol – get out of whack. And this matters because cortisol is a corticosteroid hormone that affects many of your daily functions – among other things, it’s one of your “fight or flight” hormones.

Let’s say you’re walking through the forest and a grizzly bear comes at you. As soon as you see it and realize the threat, your body kicks into action, pumping out blood sugar and adrenaline, to fuel your muscles so you could run away (or stand and fight). (4

But here’s the deal: it does that whether the stress is a good one, a bad one, or because your cellphone has spat out 20 notifications in the last 10 minutes.

Cortisol affects your blood pressure, your sleep, levels of other key hormones, your thyroid function, and so much more. And so when your cortisol levels become out of balance, that means a lot of your daily cycles (when to go to sleep, when to wake up, when to eat, etc.) become screwed up. For real. (5)

Compounding this fatigue is the fact that normally, cortisol levels are higher in the morning to get you going for the day, and lower at night, so you can sleep. But when you’re chronically tired, this can actually get turned around, which is why you can find yourself wide awake at bedtime.

2. You Can’t Stop Eating Junk Food

You might think it’s all about willpower. And it is, to a certain extent. But these food cravings can also be the result of hormones. 

You can blame cortisol, which affects some of your other key chemical responders, like leptin and ghrelin, the hunger hormones.

Ghrelin is your “I’m hungry” hormone. It tells you that you need to eat. Meanwhile, leptin is your “I’m full” hormone, which tells you to stop eating.

What can happen is that these hormones get goofed up so they are always kind of “on.” Plus, you can become resistant to leptin, which means that you never get that “full” feeling. (6)

Not only that, but when you’re stressed or depressed, your body craves calm, and the hormone serotonin provides that. What boosts serotonin? Carbs! And new research is showing that the combo of fat and sugar may also have a calming affect. 

That’s why we can crave junk foods when we’re under a lot of stress and/or overtired. (7) (8)

3. You Start Gaining Belly Fat

Gaining extra weight from all that stress-release snacking is bad enough, but when your body starts developing belly fat, it’s another deal altogether.

Belly fat is the most dangerous kind of fat, because it’s linked to a whole host of metabolic disorders (like metabolic resistance) and diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

You can blame cortisol for this, too. Remember the blood sugar surges I mentioned above, when it comes to the stress response? Well, that roller-coaster blood sugar response is linked with visceral fat, the kind that builds around your organs and is related to those diseases. (9)

4. Everything Hurts

This is one I see with a lot of my super-stressed training clients. They are always in some sort of pain – often in their shoulders, necks, and backs. And sometimes it refers to their elbows and other body parts.

A few years ago I realized I was guilty of “wearing” problems and issues on certain body parts. Like, something would come up at work and I’d “take the punch” or sometimes it almost felt like I would literally put it on my back to deal with later.

I’ve heard other women mention something similar.

All of that adds up. As much as you might not like to hear it, you are not made of iron. Yes, you might be Wonder Woman but you are still made of flesh and bone, and sooner or later all of that will catch up with you. 

It’s true: studies show that women who lead demanding lives are more than twice as likely to have more aches and pains. (10)

5. Everyone Gets on Your Nerves

If you notice that everyone around you is incompetent, “doesn’t get you,” or is ticking you off, look at the common denominator. It’s you.

The trouble with feeling irritated all the time is that it’s catching – your bad mood can rub off on others, and it’s like a self-fulfilling cycle. You’re irritated because someone does something that gets under your skin, and they get irritated because you’re irritated, and it escalates.

And also, actually feeling irritated is uncomfortable. Other people can get out of your way and avoid you, but you’re kind of stuck with yourself. (11)

6. You are On Strike or “Numbing Out”

You might not notice this one until one day you wake up and everything in your life is in chaos. 

Your home might be a mess. Your car might be filled with mail or food wrappers (all that stress eating). Maybe you have let your personal care slide a little. Maybe you have a pile of bills on the counter that needs attention. 

You come home and crash on the couch to watch Netflix marathons, avoiding chores and responsibilities.

Or instead of eating a healthy diet, you have cake for dinner. 

Basically, you’re living in avoidance. And this can happen when you’re full-up on stress.

Occasionally this kind of behavior is fine. But when it gets to be a habit, the resulting mess can seem overwhelming – and create even more stress, causing even more numbing-out behavior. (12)

7. You Get Sick Often

Have you ever noticed that you get sick after a period of stress?

Like coming down with an awful cold during exams when you were in college? Or after meeting a particularly harrowing work deadline, like dealing with tax season or a book deadline? 

The longer the stress lasts, the worse it gets: studies show that with stress lasting a few months or years, all aspects of immunity go downhill, ravaging your immune system. 

(Rhetorical question: Do you think this has anything to do with the two bouts of pneumonia I suffered a few years ago?) (13)

8. You Have Haunting Dreams

Got nightmares? You can often blame life stress, as – not surprisingly – people with more stress tend to have more nightmares. (14)

Which takes that whole “exhausted” issue to a new level, right?

9. You Want Wine/Beer/Cocktail/Weed Every Night

It’s also not surprising if you decide to self-medicate your stress with something that blurs the edges a little – like alcohol or pot.

But just be aware that this falls into the same category as “numbing out,” above. It won’t actually help you avoid the stress – it’ll just delay it, and likely even make it worse. Especially if addiction runs in your family. (15)(16)

10. You Feel Wired/Tired

You know that feeling when your mind won’t shut up, but you’re really tired? When you  just can’t seem to settle down, so you just keep pushing forward?

That’s called “wired-tired.” And it’s a classic symptom of overstress, or having messed-up cortisol levels. (17)

This is a huge one for me personally, as I have thyroid disease and the thyroid hormones also play a role with cortisol. Sometimes this feeling sneaks up on me and now I pay close attention to the signs to keep it in check.

11 Ways to Battle Stress

The good news is there are some very simple things you can do to lessen the impact stress has on your body.

And bonus: none of them require spending any money. 

1. Put all Major Decisions on Hold

Even though it might be tempting to make a huge decision in order to get out of a stressful situation, don’t do it. At least not for a while.

Try to give yourself some space so your decision comes from a proactive place, not a reactive one. Wait before you make any major purchases, quit your job, get married, move, sell your house, or start a new business. You’ll be glad later.

2. Rest, Sleep, Vacation

What’s the first thing you’d do to help calm a cranky, crying, overwhelmed child? You’d probably do your best to get her to take a nap. Here’s the thing: your needs are really no different.

One of the most important thing you can do is get some rest. Make some effort to catch up on your sleep – go to bed early. Take a nap. 

And if you’ve been under a lot of daily stress, taking an actual break or vacation can be a great way to get some perspective. 

But if circumstances – like caregiving – make a getaway impossible, do what you can to sneak in rest time.

You can’t make good decisions when you’re tired. Most of us don’t get enough sleep – and the sleep we do get is often not very restorative. (18)

You’d be surprised the number of things a good nap can cure, from grumpiness to cravings to even given you giving you bursts of insight that can help with creativity and problem-solving. (19)

3. Get Some Exercise 

Practically any form of exercise – cardio, weightlifting, yoga – will help you feel better almost immediately. (20)

I can’t even tell you how many clients have said to me, “You know, I didn’t want to come to my session today because I was stressed and tired, but now I feel so much better.”

Truth: I sometimes go through this, too. And I rarely regret the workout I was dreading because I always feel better when I finish it.

Don’t stress over the fact you don’t have an hour to devote to workouts. It doesn’t take long, hard exercise sessions to get this effect – 20- to 30-minute workouts can go a long way toward alleviating stress and helping you feel better.

4. Get Some Fresh Air

Even though we constantly hear about the dangers of sun exposure, your body needs at least a little of it, as it helps improve your mood and your sleep – both of which are intertwined with stress.

See, sun exposure boosts melatonin production, which as you’ve probably heard, plays a huge role in the amount and quality of your sleep. 

It’s also a precursor to the “feel-good” hormone serotonin.

Also, here’s a random bit of info. Did you ever notice how calming it is to look out at a beautiful landscape? That’s because to take it in, the voice in your head actually has to get quiet so your brain can process it all.

There are numerous studies showing how nature helps calm us. (21) But you don’t really need a study to feel how quickly getting outside can help soothe stress.

5. Change Your Diet

I’m going to suggest something radical here. I don’t think completely overhauling your diet and going on a Spartan regimen is a good idea.

It can be super tempting to “cleanse” your system with a juice fast, or completely cut out sugar, or go on some kind of focused, intense eating plan. Especially when you’re feeling under stress and have been eating junk food.

But have you ever known a person for whom that kind of strict diet worked long-term? I haven’t.

Your body will respond better to a gentle prodding than a beating. Going cold-turkey on caffeine or sugar will make you feel like crap. 

How about cutting back, instead? What if instead of having your 2 p.m. caramel latte-and-cookie, you cut back to 1 pump of caramel in your coffee … and you got it at 2:15 instead? The next day, you could order it at 2:30 p.m., and the day after that, at 3 p.m., etc.,  until suddenly you don’t need it any more? 

And if the idea of fasting tempts you, here’s something to think about: many times we subconsciously load up on food before and after our fast, stressing our digestive system – which is kind of counterproductive, isn’t it?

Instead, there are some common-sense changes you can make to feel better and truly take care of your body. (22)

  1. Eat “real” foods, not those from a box.
  2. Cut back on sugar
  3. Eat veggies. Lots of them.
  4. Get lean proteins.
  5. Enjoy healthy fats in moderation (they have a lot of calories).
  6. Eat fruit and healthy carbs.

6. Drink More Water

I have a client who does great at drinking water when her life is going well. But when things get stressful, the first thing that goes is her water intake.

She’s not alone. 

Guess what? This is another one of those vicious cycles, as stress causes us to drink less water, and being dehydrated causes more stress. (23)

Think of a houseplant. You know how they wilt when you haven’t given them a good drink, but when you water them, they spring back to life? 

Well, that’s kind of like your body. 

You don’t have to go overboard and suddenly start carrying around a gallon jug of water. Try to drink at least half your bodyweight in ounces of water every day. More if you exercise.

And if you want, experiment with drinking a little more. Your body will tell you how much water you need, if you listen.

8. Try Morning Pages

There have been times in my life when writing “morning pages” have been critical in getting through with some level of sanity.

Morning pages were “invented” by writer Julia Cameron, who suggests that the very first thing you do when you get up in the morning is to write three long-hand pages in a journal. (24)

There is no right or wrong way to write morning pages. In fact, you can write three pages of “I don’t want to write.” But probably you won’t do that.

When it comes to my own morning pages practice, I find that even though I’d often prefer to write fewer pages, three is the magic number.

That’s because for me, the first page is basically a bunch of random stuff that doesn’t matter, the second page is filled with resistance to writing, and the third contains some useful insights that put things in my life into perspective.

But here’s a caveat: There have been times when writing morning pages hasn’t worked for me. There have been periods in my life when they’ve turned into long, scolding rants with lists of things I should be doing instead of what I actually am doing, which caused more stress.

At those times, it’s far more useful for me to get outside as early as possible and get some fresh air and nature. And do my own version of this next tip.

9. Meditate

Meditation is enjoying a huge surge in popularity right now, and there are boatloads of studies showing how helpful it can be when it comes to reducing stress. (25) (26)

Meditation (and prayer) can help to reprogram thought patterns, by teaching you how to divert your attention from nagging worries, and releasing your attachment to them. 

If you decide to try meditation, most experts recommend that you ease into your practice, starting slow and eventually working up to 20 to 30 minutes a day, which seems to be the optimal amount to feel real results.

10. Take Yourself on a Date

Years ago I read Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, and one of the best things that I got from it was to schedule a weekly “date” with myself. It helped shift my focus from serious to fun.

Every week I would go to someplace different than inspired creativity – an antiques shop, TJ Maxx’s home section, the craft store, a junk shop, anywhere. Or maybe I’d take the dog on a walk outside of my normal stomping grounds. Or I’d try a different workout class.

Looking for more “solo date” ideas? Check out this list.

11. Wash off the Stress

This one actually got me into a little bit of hot water (pun intended) with an old boss of mine.

Back when I was a newspaper editor I went to a journalism conference, which featured a presentation about the stresses of being on deadline every day. 

One of the speakers talked about “washing off the day” with a shower as soon as you get home after work, because it helped with stress relief.

Well, that was probably the best thing that came out of the conference for me.

And so when I returned to the newsroom after spending a day away, my boss asked me about the conference. I made the mistake of raving about that tip.

Of course, he was all, “I send you to a conference and you learn about taking a shower?” 

Yep. I did. <insert snarky emoticon> But it did make a difference.

Signs You’re Too Stressed

If you’re feeling under an extreme amount of stress, don’t try to do tackle all of those tips. Pick the basic ones: getting some rest, eating right, drinking enough water, getting outdoors if possible, and trying to fit in some exercise.

Yes, some days fitting all of those “basics” in can seem like an impossible task. And if it feels selfish to want to squeeze in a workout, realize that you’re no good to the people around if you’re not good to yourself.

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