When your brain’s on overload, your body might be the first to tell you. Persistent headaches or a touchy stomach could be your body’s way of shouting that it’s time to slow down and regroup.
Humans are complex creatures. Emotional unrest can express itself as physical distress, but it can also play out in your relationships, your behavior and your mental processing.
By paying attention to your body and your mind, you can keep an eye out for the signs of emotional overload and get yourself back on track.
Here are four signs that you may be running into an emotional brick wall — and what to do about it before you crash.
#1) Your body rebels against you.
An ache here or a yawn there might not mean much on its own. But an ongoing pattern of unwellness could point to a problem with your mental fortitude. You may experience:
- Digestive problems, like stomach pain, constipation or diarrhea
- Muscle pain, including back pain, neck pain and headaches
- Fatigue and sleeping problems
- Anxiety, including panic attacks with physical symptoms
Emotional distress often manifests in your digestive system. You may have unexplained stomach pain or recurring problems with constipation or diarrhea.
When you’re under stress, you might also be tensing up without realizing it. And your muscles will pay the price. Back pain, neck pain and headaches are common signs that all is not right in your world.
Emotional exhaustion can lead to physical exhaustion. Sadness and worrying may keep you up at night so that you’re still beat in the morning.
Even if you think you’re sleeping fine, your body may try to protect itself from stress by shutting down. If you notice a change in your sleeping patterns or can’t seem to get fully refreshed, take a look at whether your mental health may be to blame.
Panic attacks are also a clear sign that something’s wrong. Physical symptoms of a panic attack can include a racing heart, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, an upset stomach and/or tingling extremities.
Keep in mind, though, that these physical problems may not indicate emotional unrest.
If you’re experiencing health issues, talk to your doctor and get a full workup. But if an exam doesn’t uncover a physical cause, it may be that stress and mental fatigue are to blame.
#2) You feel more pressure in your relationships.
When your mental health takes a nosedive, your interactions with others can start to suffer, too. Emotional fragility can leave you feeling short-fused, and the people you’re closest to may be the ones you lash out at the most.
Loved ones may try to be supportive, but your stress and irritability are likely to take a toll on your relationships.
You might even notice that others are snapping back at you or withdrawing from your company thanks to your sudden antisocial behavior. Occasional spats are normal among the people you love, but increased bickering could signal a deeper underlying problem.
Withdrawal works both ways.
During times of stress or anxiety, you may be the one who pulls back. It’s a common symptom of depression and other mood disorders. You may feel too strained or irritable to engage, or you may simply become apathetic about your relationships. And your lack of involvement may only increase others’ frustration with you.
Relationships with your coworkers may become tense as well. When your brain is overloaded, you might start:
- Showing up late
- Missing deadlines
- Asking others to cover for you
If you find that fellow employees are losing patience with you, it’s time to evaluate what role you’re playing in that dynamic.
#3) You’re not acting like yourself.
When your emotions run rampant, your behavior may follow suit.
Your relationship with food can be directly related to your mental wellbeing. You might:
- Eat more than usual
- Favor unhealthy options
- Reduce your intake to almost nothing.
Your weight will probably fluctuate accordingly. In fact, the scale may serve as your first hint that your eating habits have changed, either reading much higher or much lower than normal.
In an attempt to relieve the pressure you’re feeling, you might also find yourself turning to alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. Although substance use might provide temporary numbness, it’s likely to exacerbate your troubles over time.
A changing relationship with sex can be another sign of emotional distress. You might lose interest in sexual activity with your partner or seek thrills through high-risk encounters.
Feeling like you have no control over what’s going on around you may compel you to take charge of any little thing you can.
Sometimes this leads to obsessive or compulsive behaviors. You might be driven to line up your desk items in perfect rows, wash your hands multiple times before you eat or repeatedly get out of bed to recheck that the front door is locked.
These are all signs that indicate something’s amiss.
#4) You can’t think straight.
Being overwhelmed can take a toll on your brainpower.
You may feel like you’re losing the ability to even think straight. Unfortunately, being confused, forgetful or easily distracted may only add to your stress and anxiety.
When your brain feels foggy, it can be hard to organize your thoughts, plan out an activity or remember important events. You might feel like you’re barely keeping up with the present moment, and thinking ahead can be nearly impossible.
Creativity can take a hit, too.
If all of your mental processes are focused on basic living functions, there’s not much left for generating new or different ideas.
Of course, when you’re in the midst of this problem, it can be hard to recognize it.
After all, big-picture thinking takes brainpower. Running through a checklist may help you identify specific events that could point to a recurring pattern. Ask yourself:
- What items have I lost or misplaced recently?
- Have I forgotten any important dates or deadlines?
- Have I left any projects undone?
- Are my calendar and to-do lists up-to-date?
You may need to ask a friend or family member to chime in as well. Sometimes, we might not be able to recognize that we’re acting differently or that things have gotten as bad as they have. Ask for honest input from people you trust.
How to Reduce Emotional Overload
Everyday life can be challenging enough on its own that you don’t recognize the signs of burnout early. But by paying attention to what’s normal for you on a regular basis, you may pick up on these overlooked symptoms before they escalate.
And by catching them quickly, you can take steps to rectify the situation before it spirals out of control.
If you’re heading toward the danger zone, try:
- Reducing what’s on your plate. That might mean dropping an activity or delegating more responsibilities at work or home. If you need to, get a smaller plate, metaphorically speaking, and only fill it with the things you can handle right now.
- Practicing self-care techniques. More than just an occasional bubble bath, self-care involves really taking care of yourself. Get regular exercise, eat three balanced meals a day, drink enough water and go to sleep a consistent time each night. And set aside an hour each day for an activity that you enjoy, such as reading, drawing or shooting hoops.
- Talking to a professional. It’s time to end the notion that you need to have a diagnosed mental health disorder to talk to a therapist. People talk to therapists for all kinds of reasons, including emotional distress. A good therapist can offer different techniques for reducing your stress and dealing with the triggers in your life that make things harder. And if you need it, therapists can also work with your doctor to suggest medications that may supplement your counseling.
With attention to your mental health and the support of those around you, you may be able to reverse course before things get out of control.
But even if you’ve missed the warning signs and are now knee-deep in an emotional mess, know that help is available.
In a crisis moment, seek help right away. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has representatives available to chat online or over the phone at any time of the day or night. Call 800-273-8255 get connected to a crisis center in your area. You’ll find help for the present moment and hope for a better future.