Stress is a general term relating to mental, physical and emotional reactions. A certain degree of stress is normal. Healthy stress motivates us to action, to resolve the cause of the stress. If, for some reason, we feel unable to take action and successfully resolve the cause of our stress, stress can become a problem that compounds over time. Its impact on us, and our symptoms, can gradually worsen and even change over time. There can be many causes of this kind of stress, such as: family relationships, couple relationships, workplace issues, financial issues, demands and expectations from others and overwork, as well as unresolved grief and trauma.
Symptoms of stress vary with individuals, and with the duration and intensity of the stress. Stress is a very subjective experience: what stresses one person might not stress another; the way one person might experience stress may be very different from another. Symptoms can include physical tension, clenching of hands or jaw, restlessness, inability to relax and be still, obsessively thinking about a problem, insomnia, headaches, changes in appetite, anxiety, chronic feelings of frustration or irritability, feeling depressed or discouraged, negative self-talk, decreased concentration, "spacing out," difficulty focusing on accomplishing tasks, etc.
Of course, the first thing to address is to see whether any potential approaches to solving the problem/stress or itself have been overlooked. Sometimes this entails looking at how you are thinking about the problem; sometimes our thoughts block us from seeing possible solutions or paths of action. If there is no immediate, apparent action that can be taken to improve the situation – and decrease the stress – then it becomes critical to make your well-being your #1 priority. Even as you keep exploring possible solutions, is often important to reduce your exposure to the stressor, and to focus on managing your well-being through sleep, exercise, relaxation (including relaxation techniques), healthy diet and managing thoughts and feelings (with skills such as Mindfulness). Otherwise, compounding stress can seriously compromise your mental and physical health.
If you undergo significant stress over an ongoing period of time, you can develop a condition of chronic stress, which can lead to "stress exhaustion" and "adrenal fatigue." At this point, you can experience increased difficulty in functioning on what you would expect to be a normal level: severe difficulties with focusing and concentration, increased fatigue, heightened anxiety and/or feelings of depression, inability to cope with stressors or anything unexpected, decrease in memory, confusion, withdrawing from and/or lashing out at others, etc.
To deal effectively with these types of stress responses it is important to understand what you are reacting to, and why you are reacting that way. In many cases, people feel as though there is something wrong with them because of how they feel and react in these situations when, in fact, their reactions are an entirely predictable outcome of the situation itself. When we feel helpless to correct the situation that is causing us stress, distress or harm, we naturally develop these types of stress response. I often see this with people dealing with workplace stress.
Note: the term and diagnosis of "Adrenal Fatigue" was developed by Dr. James L Wilson. Although it is not widely accepted in conventional medicine, the concept and diagnosis does have wide recognition and is an extremely useful way to and to treat this degree of stress. Dr. Wilson's website www.adrenalfatigue.org is a wealth of information, and has a comprehensive questionnaire to assess for adrenal fatigue.