Are You Too Busy? 5 Signs of Chronic Stress


“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” ~Socrates

A few years ago, the focal point of my life was my work. It took up and made up a huge portion of my life. In retrospect, I would even say that work became a sort of obsession. I became so obsessed with being productive that I set aside almost every minute of my waking hours for some work-related activity.

I even coupled meals with work; toilet breaks meant mentally drafting reports and traffic jams signaled the start of phone meetings. You may look at this picture and think of me as an efficient multi-tasker. I honestly hope I was that, but no. I was nothing but a person trapped inside “too busy” cycle.

Some people perceive being “too busy” as a sign of success or a flourishing career. Although this can be true, being constantly overworked and overwhelmed has more detrimental than positive effects. Being crazy-busy implies stress, and our body can only take so much pressure before it activates its stress response and runs on “survival or panic mode.”

Stress can be helpful and motivating to some degree, but substantial evidence shows that chronic exposure to high levels of stress prompts the body to release hormones called glucocorticoids, which can potentially damage several body systems.

When I learned about the gravity of chronic stress and my overly busy life, I made an effort to change my habits and keep everyday stress to a minimum. There are so many ways to effectively manage stress, but you can do so only after you actually notice and admit that you are indeed too busy and too stressed out.

I have listed below some of the things that have made me realize that my “busyness” was out of hand.

1. I was always looking for something.

Searching for my car keys, phone, wallet, jewelry, eyeglasses, and documents became a part of my daily routine. Things seemed to be misplaced or lost all of the time.

Cortisol, the hormone released when you are stressed, damages the brain over time and can lead to memory problems. But aside from that, when we are stressed out, our thoughts tend to be all over the place, and this lack of focus and the disorganized thoughts could very well cause us to lose track of things.

2. I’d get inappropriately infuriated by the smallest things.

Stress made me a grumpy, unhappy, moody woman. I’d get angry over the smallest mistakes of others and get irritated by just about anything.

When we are stressed, our minds are so overloaded that we are unable to logically and calmly process situations and information. Hence, we have less and less tolerance for mistakes and irregularities.

Furthermore, stress often causes us to lose sleep. And not getting enough sleep can cause a depletion of the neurotransmitter called serotonin which plays a role in calming us down during stressful times.

3. I woke up every single day feeling tired.

It was awful waking up in the morning feeling as if I had not gotten a single hour of sleep. I am pretty sure I slept, but when I woke up, I felt really drained and exhausted.

Morning fatigue is one of the surest signs that you are overworked, overstretched, and overscheduled. The feeling of overwhelming tiredness after waking up indicates that you have not rested well during the night. You may have gone to bed and shut your eyes early but your busy mind just won’t shut down.

4. I frequently experienced headaches.

Hardly a week would go by without me experiencing a terrible headache. I would often feel this tightness in my head that would extend to the back of my neck.

Tension headaches are among the most common symptoms of chronic stress. Part of the body’s response to stress is muscular contraction; however, when exposure to stress is prolonged, muscles often spasm, resulting in some sort of pain or discomfort. Spasm of the muscles in the upper back, neck, and scalp area results in tension headaches.

5. I constantly felt a vague feeling of unhappiness.

I was unhappy, but I could not pinpoint why exactly. Most days, I would feel really heavy and sulked for no reason at all.

Stress can cause a roller coaster of emotions because it has the capacity to affect your body’s hormone levels and also cause brain disturbances. This is why a lot of people who have been exposed to a great deal of stress for a prolonged period have fallen into depression.

There is nothing wrong with fulfilling your responsibilities, obligations, and duties. However, you must know how to draw the line between working for a living and living for your work. As I’ve experienced, being “too busy” reduces the quality of your life. Remember that balance is key to everything.

Busy image via Shutterstock

About Kara Heissman

Kara Heissman is the owner of self-improvement blog Contented Through her blog, she shares her experiences, knowledge, and insights to help everyone live the life that they deserve—happy, healthy, and fulfilled. Her writings mainly revolve around stress, self-esteem, health, and fitness.

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  • Good post.

    It’s definitely something everyone needs to watch out for. I suffered from this as well as a few other things and I found myself smiling after everything you said. sometimes I still get those things when I literally work from when I wake up to when I go to sleep, but once they start happening you can do something about fixing them. Now I always go for a swim to chill out in the morning.

  • Summerscircus

    Wow. I am 5 for 5. Something probably needs to give. As a married, working mom of three boys, I am constantly striving to complete everything. But my work, family, and domestic lists go on and on. They are bottomless, and there’s never enough hours in the day. I’m not sure what the solution is for my situation, but something definitely needs to give.

  • ahunt

    I have been recently told I have adrenal fatique.. your article describes much of what led up to my breakdown. Now I have to totally reevaluate my identity as the “work horse, just get it done” person used to be cannot exist anymore. She was killing me.

  • Chris Steines

    Great advice and great points to consider. Also, while the focus of this post is working folk, I think it’s also advisable to recognize that non-working folk can suffer from excessive stress as well. (As a recent graduate of a four-year university who has been, as of yet, unable to secure unemployment, and looking down the barrel of menacing student loan payments, I can attest to this!)

    There was a recent article I read once about us, as a society, suffering from a “nature deficit”. I’ve definitely found that forcing myself to admire nature – even if it’s something as simple as admiring the moonrise/set/sunrise/set – is amazingly effective at turning off my brain, even for a short while.

  • mauh

    thank you i am at the point were stress is bogging down my mind ,my happyness ,joy and things i love .. my body is doing well and at times im so over welmed i dont know how much longer i can deal with things . i want to go and somany things keep me around . my kids my family and who knows what else . i only pray that this get better …thank you for the hormonal part . im seeing an endriocronaligist soon maybe some were along the path . their will be comfort and ease for my body mind and spirit . thank you once again .

  • Nga

    I very much needed this. Thank you so much for writing this piece – it came at a very relevant time. Thank you, thank you.

  • hsp

    I’m also 5 for 5. The problem is finding ways to destress and the time to still get everything done. Something does have to give; I’m just not sure what. 🙁

  • Most times when I feel like this, it makes me feel like I am not good enough to handle everything. I need to just accept that something needs to change, and that its not about can I handle it…..Thank you for this article.

  • Yep, I’ve been down this road before in a previous job doing 12-16 hours at work, chasing a career, success or something…? it turned into a nasty downward spiral into burnout. Luckily for me the dept. I worked in fell apart and I had to find another job; not realizing the burnout & how much I needed a change.

    Looking back I think the most important changes was:

    1) I moved out of the busiest area of the city into a townhouse with a garden. I opted to not have a room mate, it meant I had to cover the rent alone, but importantly, I had the space to myself. I didnt need to put up with being considerate to someone elses space and habits. Sounds hard, but it was a stressor that at the time I couldnt handle. So I could come home and relax.

    2) In the new job I just kept quiet and did exactly what was asked of me, did it well, but no more (I used to take on more and be perfectionistic, and fight for doing things better when others were complacent), I did only the required hours which meant I got home before dark! ie, I took the pressure off myself.

    3) I considered all the other things that took up time in my life; did I really need facebook/twitter every day? Did I really have to be at the gym 5 days a week? Did I really need all those magazine subscriptions (which I always felt obligated to read cause I paid for them)? Did I really need those late night social events that drained me? Which parts of my life could I delegate; like laundry or finances?

    I had to choose what was most important to me, choose fewer things, and let go of the rest. It is really hard, and I constantly find myself having to redo this step as it is so easy to find some new interest that wants to consume time.

    I never really looked into it (a little perplexed why I didnt), but
    the muscle tension due to stress was such a weird experience; in the
    months that followed after changing my life, I would almost every month become aware of a different part of my body relaxing. For example, I’d be driving somewhere and suddenly I’d feel more forearms wanting to relax, not having been aware that they were tense! In the days that followed it would be this fight to let go, re training my brain to NOT tense that muscle! The same happened again and again…

    After 2.5 years I finally I think I’m back to being a normal human being after being through 2 burnouts in 4 years. Having made those changes has given me the breathing room to rethink life and my expectations for it, ultimately helping me to be a more relaxed , less anxious person. I can think clearly and remember things now.

    I’m looking forward to see what life will be like from here onwards!

  • Sandra Walsh

    A great book for this is ‘Rushing Woman’s Syndrome’ by Dr Libby Weaver – really explains what is happening in our body when we are constantly stressed – it was like a light bulb moment for me reading it 🙂

  • Nanour

    I think chronic stress would also be code word for burnt out. Once you feel it, you are already half in it. I couldnt put it in words but you did. Thx.

  • Anonymous

    I’m in high school and me and one of my closest friends are 5 for 5. We literally don’t have time eat of sleep or do anything. But I mean honestly what can we do? The pressure of high school these days is insane! You have to be flawless to get into a good college. And once you get into college? It will be this but ten times worse! I want to go to med school and so many people tell me it’s going to be horrible. I don’t know what to do and I have so much to do I can’t breathe!!

  • Wishing4Vaction

    I understand how you feel. I am also in highschool and the stress is insane. When I get home I don’t have time to eat because I’m to busy trying to sleep. Then after I finish sleeping like the dead I wake up to do homework or study but at the same time I’m STILL sleepy. Which results in low test scores on the test I fell asleep studying on and C’s and D’s on my progress report. Its getting to be overwhelming, hopefully I can get through these last 2 years without having a mental breakdown

  • Wishing4Vacation

    It bothers me to the very core when I explain my situation about being overworked, stressed, or stretched to thin to the older generation in my family or teachers and they say silly things like “oh, you’re just a kid you can’t possibly be stressed, you don’t know what stressed is, or ” wait until you have to pay bills,” or the worst yet “you’re just being lazy.” This is why I only explain my feelings to my mom now because the rest of the family just don’t get It nor care to get it. They are still stuck on their highschool days when it probably was better than paying bills. I think its very inconsiderate to want me to talk to you and open up to you about things and then you turn right around and don’t listen to what I say, judge me about it, or basically flat out call me a liar

  • dfa

    highschool is incredibly hard. It’s a full time job without getting paid. If you do a sport on top of it that’s even harder. If you have a job with it, forget it, then if you do other things like make videos or play instrument or something it’s probably the busiest time of your life, college is less busy unless you make yourself busy

  • dfa

    Highschool sucks, college is better. But if you can’t pay for college go to a 2
    year work your butt off then go to a 4 year school. Even crappy 4 year schools
    are better than good community colleges as far as entertaining. i’ve been to
    both. Doesn’t mean they’re not work and are always fun. but Highschool with
    all the extra things besides school is super hard.

  • Jamie Ellis

    I’m not even at work yet. I’m in uni and I’m my own worst enemy here. I keep worrying about the future that has been set out for me since primary school. The path from primary school, into secondary, then uni and then successful job and family. I’m really annoyed because this isn’t me. The stress of not being able to do work, down to my head not being able to focus, forgetting things from lectures, my head just won’t be quiet! I’m only 19, but I need to change. People say that once you know you’re stressed or depressed, you should try to remove that factor from your life, but how can I quit uni and leave everyone disappointed in me?

    If you’re looking for specific info, i’m on a computer science course and i struggle with the maths, algorithms and java sides because my brain just gets confused by symbols and numbers a lot. Maths has never been a strong suit, partially because they have no meaning to them. They have no reason and my understanding of things comes from understanding what they do and why. I’ve always been a more emotional person than thinking with my head. Any advice before i have my 3rd mental breakdown of my first year?

  • Sherbze

    There’s no way college is less busy, are you kidding me??!

  • UNSCspartan

    think it might be bad if I’m only 15 and experiencing all of these minus the headache?

  • LJ

    I’m curious to know what you’re up to now? Did you carry on the degree course or quit?

  • Jamie Ellis

    I quit and haven’t recovered. It kinda sucks.

  • LJ

    I’m sorry to hear that. By the sound of things though you were very miserable when you wrote that post. You’re only 21 – you are young enough to make other moves. Did you think of looking into another career or looking for business opportunities?

  • Argument Clinic

    Yeah no kidding. All nighters for studying and if you take full credits definitely not enough hours in a day!

  • Argument Clinic

    The things you own end up owning you

  • Wendy Jone

    “Morning fatigue is one of the surest signs that you are overworked, overstretched, and overscheduled. ”

    It could also mean that you’re a night owl stuffed into a morning person’s world. It’s like living every day with a hangover (only to perk up again every night).