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First Responders First - Red flags of stress



Stress is the body’s response to any disturbances in the body and may take the form of emotional, physiological, behavioral, and cognitive stressors. Stress in small amounts is good as it can provide motivation and endurance to overcome challenges. However, stress in excessive amounts or for prolonged periods can have a damaging effect on the body. These stressors often occur from concerns related to finances, job performance, relationships, and health. When crisis situations arise, such as disasters, these stressors can compound and overlap. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Erik, an ICU nurse, was caught between anxiety about bringing the infection home, especially to his pregnant wife and unborn child, and working more as needed to support his clients and teammates. Like many others, he made the difficult decision to isolate and live separately. The loss of the physical presence of loved ones, as well as other stressors, can intensify and build upon one another. Prolonged stress can increase anxiety and depression, and can lead to panic attacks, heart disease, diabetes, or suicide. In these periods of prolonged or excessive stress, it is crucial to recognize the body’s warning signs of impending stress and seek support from colleagues, family, or professionals to intervene as soon as possible. These signals reveal that the body is struggling and needs help.

So, what are the warning signs of stress? In general, common signs can present themselves in four areas. First are emotional indicators and often present as negative emotions. These may include feeling irritable, angry, or frustrated in social situations. Experiencing emotions like anxiety, fear, guilt, or sadness are also common. Other signs include feeling disconnected from others, losing interest in daily activities, or feeling numb and unable to feel joy or sadness. 

Second are physiological indicators and can include physical distress symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, diarrhea, muscle tension, or neck or back pains. Other common signs include a rapid heart rate, palpitations, tremors, chills, sweatiness, or jitteriness. Another common sign is a loss of appetite or overconsuming comfort foods. 

Third are behavioral indicators and often include sleep disruptions, such as having difficulty falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much. There may be changes in energy levels like experiencing fatigue or bursts of energy. Crying spells with or without a known reason can also occur. Other signs include having difficulty accepting help or helping others, spending increasing amounts of time alone, and avoiding family and friends. Another common sign can include engaging in risky behaviors, like taking unnecessary risks, refusing to follow directions, or increased use of negative coping strategies. 

  1. "How to Tell When Your Stress Level Is Becoming Harmful"  (2020)
  2. "Listening to the Warning Signs of Stress"  (2008)
  3. "Tips for Survivors of a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event: Managing Stress"  (2013)
  4. "Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Emotional Distress"  (2020)