Here are four ways to tell if you're more stressed than you should be.
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Stress is unavoidable, but experts say it's not always bad for us. "We all experience stress and anxiety, and, in small amounts stress can be helpful; it can motivate us to meet deadlines, pay bills, or do things that are unpleasant but are to our benefit," says therapist Hope Kelaher, LCSW. But when we get too stressed, our bodies respond with physical, emotional, and mental changes that take even daily challenges—like sitting in traffic—from frustrating to impossible. "Stress, especially when it gets to be overwhelming, can be a primary reason people seek therapy," says Kelaher. "The reality is that each of us has a different stress tolerance, which may also change over the life course as our ability to navigate challenges changes." Ahead, how to determine whether or not you have exceeded your personal stress threshold, according to the experts.

Understand what causes stress.

At its most basic, stress is "a mental or physical response to an external situation or perceived challenge," says Dr. Krystal Lewis, clinical psychologist and researcher at the National Institutes of Mental Health. "Everyone feels stress from time to time and some individuals feel it more often than others. Sometimes, the stress response occurs in situations to protect us and keep us safe; other times, this stress response can help motivate people. However, when the stress starts to affect our physical and/or mental health, well-being, or ability to function, we may have reached our stress threshold."

Everyone's stress threshold is different: It's impacted by your body's physiology, which determines how often and how powerfully your stress response is triggered; personality traits, like perfectionism, social inhibition, and self-esteem; and other factors, like past trauma or current struggles. "Internal and external resources can significantly contribute to stress levels," says Lewis. "If someone is lacking basic resources—food, shelter, money—they may experience stress differently. In essence, stress occurs when the perceived demands of the situation outweigh an individual's available resources, and this could be perceived internal resources, like social competence for meeting new people, or external resources."

Evaluate your own stress level.

Identifying the experiences that cause you stress—both by considering your physiological responses and your emotions around different experiences—can help you understand your own personal stress threshold. "Be aware of how your body responds to stress," says Lewis. "Learn to identify the signs and symptoms of stress that you experience when you are dealing with challenging situations. Ask yourself: When do these signs and symptoms tend to go away and when do they tend to persist? Which signs and symptoms bother you the most?" Next, consider how you think about different types of experiences—which you find stressful, and which you don't. "Ask yourself, what do you look forward to versus what you perceive as overwhelming or taxing?" says Lewis. "Learning to identify the situations that cause you stress is important so that you can determine how to address the situation or modify your response to it. Awareness of your own mind and body is most important in identifying where your stress threshold lies."

Note how stress affects your health and daily life.

As you reach your stress threshold, your body will offer physical, mental, and emotional clues that can help you evaluate your well-being. "Stress can show up as pain in your chest, difficulty breathing, tension in your muscles, pain and discomfort in your stomach, or increased sick days," says Lewis, who also cites headaches and migraines, gastrointestinal issues, elevated blood pressure and heart rate, and decreased libido as physical manifestations of stress. "Some of the mental and emotional signs are changes in mood, irritability, depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts and uncontrollable worry, memory problems, and indecision," says Lewis. "Stress can also impact behaviors and some people may experience increased use of drugs and alcohol, increased or decreased appetite, social withdrawal, and sedentary or avoidant behavior. It is important for people to attend to their behaviors and explore why they may be engaging in them."

Manage stress with relaxation techniques—and help.

If you're reaching—or passing—your stress threshold, finding a management strategy that works for you is key. Lewis recommends incorporating yoga, meditation, walks, or other daily relaxation techniques into your routine, and practicing deep breathing and mindfulness exercises. "Some people may find it helpful to use a visualization activity of picturing a calm, relaxing environment, and placing themselves in that context while engaging in deep breathing," says Lewis. "These activities can help in the immediate term, as well as the long-term. But when the stress response is being consistently triggered or seems to last for long periods and is impacting daily life, it is most important to reach out [to your doctor] for help."

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