If you’re constantly stressed or get stressed easily, your stress response may be overly engaged. Here’s how to find relief.
If you’ve ever thought, “Why am I always so stressed?” you’re not alone. Stress is a natural and necessary part of life. It’s a survival mechanism left over from the days when our ancestors were facing tricky terrain and hungry predators.
But, more than 10 thousand years later, we still use the same hard wiring to warn us when something is amiss.
Your body doesn’t always know the difference between a real threat and a challenge. And when stress becomes chronic, you may feel overwhelmed all the time.
So, if you feel you’re stressed all the time and don’t even know why, it’s possible your stress response is activated. Self-care strategies can help you reset the system and better cope with stressors.
Stress is experienced when you face a stressful event and need to respond to it. The thing is that what may be a stressful event for you might not be for someone else. So, there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of a stressor or stressful event or a single cause of stress.
But research shows that when you feel a stressor is significantly greater than your ability to handle it (or when there are too many stressors at once), it can cause overwhelming distress and anxiety.
This may lead you to become hypervigilant and prolong your stress response. In other words, you might be experiencing chronic stress.
The stress response is associated with your
Once the threat has passed, your body engages the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as your rest-and-digest state, and you feel at ease again.
But if the threat doesn’t pass or you don’t have the resources to cope with it, your body may stay in a state of heightened arousal.
This chronic stress increases your
Reasons why you may currently find yourself stressed all the time and not know why may include one or a combination of these:
- unresolved trauma
- intergenerational or genetic trauma
- persistent exposure to microaggressions
- poverty, health inequity, and systemic racism
- family conflict or being in a toxic relationship
- low psychological safety at work
- chronic or unexpected health challenges
- changes in your sleep patterns
- financial challenges
- climate-related grief or stress
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- prolonged grief disorder
- undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- undiagnosed anxiety disorders
- small or no support system
This isn’t an all-inclusive list. Your personal circumstances and history are unique and could involve additional factors that could be activating your stress response.
Stress exists on a spectrum. Positive stress or eustress may give you the push you need to accomplish your goals, for example. On the other end, chronic stress may lead to burnout.
Burnout often occurs when chronic stress isn’t addressed and uses up all your emotional, psychological, and physical reserves.
Here are some of the symptoms of stress versus burnout:
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Some people may naturally experience stress more intensely. Other people may have a set tolerance to stressors and once that’s reached, stress may be more difficult to handle. It’s also possible that some of your habits may worsen your stress.
Mental health conditions
Anxiety disorders and PTSD are two conditions that may activate the fire alarm in your brain — the amygdala — more easily and make you feel you’re always stressed.
Other conditions, like complex trauma or personality disorders, can decrease your distress tolerance and make emotional regulation more challenging. Emotion dysregulation could lead to more difficulty handling everyday stressors.
A 2020 study found that those who measured high in neuroticism had a harder time coping than those with other dominant traits, like openness.
Research suggests you may find it more difficult to cope with stressors if you follow a less than optimal sleep routine and don’t follow a nutrient-dense diet.
There are short-term and long-term ways to cool down your nervous system if you feel you’re always stressed.
Try deep breathing
A 2019 systematic review found that diaphragmatic breathing (deep-belly breathing), can engage the parasympathetic nervous system, that rest-and-digest state discussed earlier.
If possible, try box breathing:
- inhale for four
- hold for four
- exhale for four
- hold for four
Try grounding exercises
Grounding exercises may help to bring you into the present moment (called mindfulness), away from worries about the past and future.
If possible, try to take a break from the stressor and self-soothe with:
- 1-minute mindfulness exercises
- gentle movement (tai chi or dance)
- outdoor time
- Talking with someone you trust
- body scan meditation
Consider relaxation activities
Rest is just as important as results. Relaxation may feel like a guilty pleasure, but it can help your body and mind return to a state of balance. If you can, try to pencil in time for regular self-care and relaxation techniques.
This can include:
- arts and crafts
- restorative yoga class
- listening to music you love
Try to maintain a balanced lifestyle
A balanced lifestyle can help to set you up for success.
If possible, try to:
- allow unstructured time in your schedule
- avoid stimulants, like caffeinated coffee
- consume a nutrient-dense, balanced diet
- get at least 8 hours of sleep each night
- reduce your alcohol intake
- set healthy boundaries, like taking on less work
- take your vacation time
- turn off social media
When to seek help
If your stress levels are interfering with your quality of life, you may find it helpful to work with a therapist. Someone who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you explore the root of your challenges and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) may help you build distress-tolerance skills.
If you feel stressed all the time, you might be dealing with chronic stress or burnout.
You may find it helpful to practice grounding activities, make supportive lifestyle changes, and carve out more time for your favorite relaxation activities. Working with a therapist could also help you explore the causes of your stress as well as a coping plan that works for you.