What Does Stress Look Like?

Published on January 18, 2017

The old saying goes that nothing in life is certain aside from death and taxes, but in today's nonstop modern world, we could add another inevitability to the list: stress. It's going to happen, no matter how much yoga you do or how calm-natured you are. You can't always prevent stress from happening, but you can adapt to it - and change how you react to it.

You might think you know how to recognize the signs of stress since it happens to everyone, every day, but it can be sneaky! And, since the stress response is a healthy, normal bodily process (the adrenal glands control that response), it is as individualized in its manifestation as we are. Here are four sketches of how the stress response might normally happen for different people.

The Workaholic Dad

Gene is 47 years old and lives in a tree-lined suburb of a major Midwestern city. He drives into his job at a creative agency every day, with almost two hours in the car round-trip when traffic is backed up. He loves his family and his work, and his schedule is packed.

He coaches his son's youth soccer league on weekends and often travels for work. Gene doesn't say no, and he is more likely to cut back on sleep than to skip a meeting, date night or school play.

He drinks a lot of coffee, and he even has a single-cup pourover set-up at his desk so he can bypass the sub-par office brew. When he does go to sleep, it takes him awhile to wind down. He sleeps 4-5 hours a night, which he's used to by now. When he wakes up, it's quickly -almost with a start - but it's not a cheerful feeling. Though his mood is normal and healthy, he has occasional feelings of nervousness and dread. With another nearly 20 years before retirement, Gene wishes he could learn how to balance life and work a bit better.

The Serial Overachiever

Busy mom on laptop with children playing with toys around her

Samantha is 35, a married mother of three - ages 7, 5 and 3. She earned degrees in French and art history from a prestigious university, then immediately began her career, moving up in the nonprofit where she works rather quickly. She is responsible for fundraising for the arts in a midsize liberal college town on the West Coast, and her job can be chaotic.

In between having her children, she earned her MBA at night, and she's also a triathlete who used to do a couple of Olympic-length races every year (except during her last two pregnancies).

Samantha feels like she didn't bounce back after her third pregnancy the way she did with her other two. After breastfeeding and/or being pregnant for nearly six years straight, she feels like her body is her own. She resumed training last year, but her body and her energy levels were not as excited as her competitive spirit was.

Samantha notices that although she's training as much as she ever was - thanks to a supportive partner and family that lives close by to help with the kids - she isn't placing in her age group anymore. Her mood is normally happy and calm, but she experiences occasional bouts of anxiousness as well as restless sleep. She has struggled to maintain her 5 a.m. wake-up calls to run or swim, which used to be her "me time." Instead, she resets her alarm and gets the best sleep in those fleeting morning hours. She loves her life, but she still mourns the loss of her former self.

The Wired and Tired Social Butterfly

Ashley, 24, works in PR in New York, and her job requires she's always on the go. Her iPhone is permanently connected to her, and she's a social media maven. She is single but has several roommates, as well as a cat. Ashley is not a morning person, and she tells people not to bother talking to her until she's had at least two cups of coffee. "But first, coffee," is her mantra. She drinks several lattes and espresso shots throughout the day, usually at client meetings, but she still feels like she's dragging until well after lunch.

She does her best work from 3 p.m. on, and she's frequently one of the last people in the office. From 3 to 7, she's in the zone, churning out account updates and press releases. This is her high-energy time, which works out perfectly because many of her clients are on the West Coast. She usually meets friends for dinner or has a date, not arriving home until nearly 11. Ashley gets bored when she's home alone, so she's always out doing something during the week. By 11, she is tired after her busy, exciting days, but she's usually on her phone for another couple of hours. If she does go straight to bed, her brain is racing with ideas, and she often shoots off emails on her phone and plans her to-do list when it's already tomorrow.

The Night Owl Mama

Cheryl is a stay-at-home mom with two kids - a freshman in high school and a third-grader. She's in her early 40s, and she's starting to feel her age for the first time in her life. Cheryl loves sleep and tries to make it to bed by 10 so she can get a full eight hours. But, by morning, she wishes she had gone to bed earlier. She dreams of being able to catch up on sleep and feels like she's still repaying the sleep debt she started accruing when her oldest was born 14 years ago! Her kids know morning is the time to ask Mom for anything, because she'll still be groggy and will be more likely to say yes. Cheryl is very organized, and she never misses a school dropoff or pickup, no matter how much she'd prefer to stay in bed.

Before the kids get home from after-school activities, she's usually dragging. Afternoons are her lowest time, energywise, and she loves lattes or mini peanut-butter cups as a pick-me-up. She makes dinner most nights, but then feels sleepy even if it's a light meal. She has fallen asleep during storytime when tucking in her youngest more often than not. Cheryl gets a second wind after the kids are in bed, spending time with her partner and finally enjoying her "me time" and a quiet house after midnight.

Her self-imposed 10 p.m. bedtime often comes and goes without notice, and Cheryl instead spends a few hours reading, cleaning the house and sometimes even walking on the treadmill while catching up on her favorite shows. Cheryl walks a few times a week with some friends after dropping the kids at school, but lately she's been trying to exercise more because she's still struggling with her weight.

We can all relate to Gene, Samantha, Ashley and Cheryl. We are all doing our best each and every day to balance all our responsibilities in life with our desires. We want to give 100% at work or school and at home. We want to be the super mom or dad, the rising star at the office. We want to have an endless capacity to say "yes" when our peers and loved ones ask for help.

stress written in sand on beach with wave washing over last s in word

Our ability to adapt to stress and deal with what life brings our way is called resilience. The good news is that we can increase our resilience by continuing to challenge ourselves in life. The bad news is that we also need to maintain a healthy balance to continue to foster resilience without tipping the scale in the opposite direction.

Each one of us could probably see some of ourselves in these four stories, and we could probably also find plenty of ways to judge how these fellow humans are choosing to adapt to the stress that's a part of the daily lives. Collectively, we all need to prioritize self-care (here are 9 Self-Care Techniques That Take 10 Minutes or Less), for starters. And we could all cultivate more compassion for the stress we see others dealing with each day. Most people are not trying to inconvenience, upset or slight us; they're simply just trying to make it through the day, just like we are. We don't always know what's really going on.

Look around you. The co-worker who snaps at you when you seek his input on a project? He's helping to care for his aging parents at nights and on weekends. The neighbor who's standoffish when you see her at the grocery store? She's going through a divorce and trying to navigate life as a working mom. That friend who's been ignoring your texts for the last three weeks? Her boss quit, and she's responsible for his work as well as her own.

Stress happens. So how will you adapt to it? How do others adapt to it? And, when you begin to identify how it naturally manifests in others, how can you choose to react to it?

Need to maintain a healthy response to physical and emotional stress?* There's Adrenal Health® Daily Support.   

Need support while your body repairs and restores at night?*  There's also Adrenal Health® Nightly Restore.

Need a holistic approach to occasional exhaustion and stress?* And there's Adrenal Health® Jump Start.

So how will you adapt?