As the body rushes to produce cortisol in a heightened state of fight-or-flight, this strain will surface in different ways.
For some, it will appear as brain fog: that woolly feeling where you just can’t seem to focus, no matter how hard you try. For others, it will manifest as fatigue. Stress is a physically and emotionally exhausting state to be in, hence its close relationship with burnout.
However, another telltale sign of when you’re chronically stressed is when you start overreacting – a response that typically appears in intimate relationships.
As developmental psychologist Deborah L. Davis explains in an article for Psychology Today, this sensitivity has a physiological cause.
“When life is stressful, your core brain works overtime, scanning your surroundings for yet another threat, making your limbic system hyper-aroused, and you feeling more stressed out,” she says.
This response is geared to action; so rather than thinking things through rationally, you are likely to react to people or events fast, and in a way that’s not necessarily very considered.
It’s a reaction that works well if you happen to come up against a sabre-toothed tiger, as in hunter-gatherer times: in that situation, you’d need your wits about you, and any dallying would bring major costs.
But it’s less useful when everyday conversations with your partner start to swerve off-track.
“Because your intimate relationship is important to you, when your core brain is hypervigilant, you tend to experience what’s happening as highly personal, that is, happening to you and being all about you,” explains Davis.
For example, “if your partner is grumpy, you might wonder if they’re mad at you, instead of observing that they’ve had a tough day”. The same goes if your other half isn’t as warm as usual, or seems a bit removed.
Of course, there may be a totally valid reason for you being upset at the behaviour in question. But if you’re feeling generally stressed, it’s worth bearing that in mind as well.
If you can be aware of the fact that your hypervigilant mind is causing you to feel wounded more easily, you and your partner may be able to avoid the familiar pattern of defense and counter-accusation that is the root cause of so many arguments.
But there’s another more profound reason why you should take note of any stress-related sensitivity, too. Chronic stress, if left unchecked, can easily spill over into burnout.
Research shows this debilitating condition hits its peak in the 34-54 age group, and typically affects more women than men. Symptoms include a lingering sense of exhaustion or apathy, coupled with strain and irritability in your closest relationships.
So if you’re beginning to feel a constant knot of tension in your stomach, or a growing sensation that you’re constantly “on edge”, and whatever your partner says or does is wrong – it’s time to take a step back.
It may indeed mean that your partner is at fault, or that your relationship is toxic in a broader context. But if you normally get on fine, and you’re feeling stressed anyway, it could also be your cue to start making some changes.
Even simple things like walking in nature, taking regular breaks or five-minute breathing exercises can help to lift the pressure. That way, you put a lid on constant bickering while also prioritising your own wellbeing – something that is more important now, in this year of chaos, than at any other point.