En español | Wins and medals aren’t the only things grabbing attention at this year’s Olympic games in Tokyo: Mental health awareness is also in the spotlight, after U.S. star gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from some events in order to focus on her emotional well-being.
Olympians or not, we’re all susceptible to stress, whether from job or family pressures or obligations like caregiving. Here are the physical and mental signs that experts say could signal trouble.
1. Insomnia and difficulty sleeping
Can’t fall or stay asleep? Insomnia is a classic symptom of stress, says Connecticut-based clinical psychologist Holly Schiff. For example, Biles said she “could barely nap” before the Olympic team gymnastics final. And the consequences of lack of sleep, including fatigue and problems concentrating, can make it even harder to get through the day, creating a stress snowball effect.
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To break the no-slumber cycle, Schiff recommends that you keep a bedside journal to jot down the worries keeping you up at night, whether that’s tomorrow’s to-do list or other preoccupying thoughts. “Getting it down on paper and theoretically out of your mind can be helpful and free up some mental space, so you can focus on getting a restful night’s sleep,” she says.
2. Changes in mood and thinking
Changes in mood, like increased sadness or irritability, are another stress warning sign, according to psychoanalyst Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College.
“If you are highly anxious because you’re highly stressed, the feeling could definitely be one of agitation or restlessness in your body, a feeling of being fearful,” she says. “In the case of chronic stress that’s making you feel very burned out, it could be a feeling of being very down or even numb.”
Along with shifts in mood, Schiff notes that changes in thinking — like a feeling of brain fog (or, conversely, racing thoughts) — difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness are other signs to watch for.
3. Somatic symptoms
Somatic symptoms (or physical signs of stress) include headaches, upset stomach, dizziness, shaking (another symptom that Biles said she experienced before competition), and general aches and pains.
These signs arise from stress’s physiological effect on the body (stress triggers the release of symptom-causing hormones and neurotransmitters, such as cortisol and norepinephrine). Experts say that physical symptoms are more common among older adults, particularly those who may view mental health issues as taboo or stigmatized.
“Today’s older adults … may not recognize what’s going on as readily,” Saltz says. “Or if they do, [they] may not feel as comfortable talking with others or seeking treatment.”
4. Social isolation and withdrawal
Experts say another hallmark of stress and related mental health issues is pulling away from friends, loved ones and day-to-day activities.
But Saltz notes that there’s a “fine line” between self-isolating because of stress, anxiety or a mood disorder like depression (which worsens symptoms) and choosing to take a break from certain activities in order to address burnout — a state of physical and mental exhaustion that results from a situation in which someone faces chronic stress, like work or caregiving.
A professional evaluation is a good option for those who want to ensure they take the right approach to understanding and treating the root cause of their symptoms, Saltz says.
And because of the wide range of ways that stress can present itself, plus the overlap between its symptoms and signs of other physical ailments and mental health conditions, Schiff and Saltz recommend checking in with a health care provider or a mental health professional about new or concerning symptoms of stress that interfere with daily functioning.
Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined aarp.org as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.