THE BLOG
01/20/2015 02:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Take the Stress Test

Eric Audras via Getty Images

We don't so much look at things as overlook them, and what we don't see can blindside us. This is especially true of stress. We have become so habituated to work and family stress that we regard it as normal. But chronic stress is anything but normal. It produces abnormal cells that cause cancer and premature aging, along with thwarting success at work and happiness at home. We need to put an end to stress before stress ends us... and we can!

2015-01-17-canstockphoto11195692HUFFPOST.jpgThe first step in getting free of stress is assessing how much it impacts your life. The assessment below can help. Here's how:

Each of the statements reflects a sign of stress. Identify those items that are true about you and read the neurobiological explanation for it. Then copy the item from the blog and paste it into a Word document. When you've finished, complete the short exercise at the bottom of the blog.

I get less and less pleasure from activities that I used to enjoy. Neurobiological explanation: A stress hormone called adrenal glucocorticoid interacts with serotonin receptors in the brain when stress is high or chronic. This interferes with our capacity to experience pleasure and remain motivated. An imbalance of serotonin can lead to depression.

☐ I have trouble making decisions. Neurobiological explanation: The greater the stress, the greater the likelihood we'll make bad decisions. An episode of relentless stress impairs decision-making in rats, rendering them unable to identify the larger of two rewards.

My memory and concentration are not as good as they used to be. Neurobiological explanation: Acute psychological stress reduces working and prospective memory and reallocates neural resources away from executive function networks. That's a technical way of saying stress causes memory lapse, attention deficit, and the inability to carry out a plan.

Simple things feel burdensome or difficult to accomplish. Neurobiological explanation: Stress hormones can elevate dopamine levels in the brain, creating a decline in cognitive performance. Even easy tasks can become difficult to manage. We stop looking for new ways to approach old tasks when an old way fails. Behavior tends to habituate when the brain is under stress and the brain locks into doing the same unproductive thing over and over, and eventually abandoning the task altogether.

I have a shorter fuse these days. I'm more impatient, more on edge, and more easily frustrated or annoyed. And I experience upsetting emotions such as fear, paranoia, dejection, worry, or pessimism to a greater degree or for prolonged periods. Neurobiological explanation: Stress is closely associated with fear. When we feel at risk, the brain shifts to survival mode. The amygdala, the brain's fear center, activates fight, flight, or freeze, and we become anxious and aggressive, or withdrawn and depressed.

I criticize my significant other more, tend to ruminate on the flaws in our relationship, bicker more frequently, and blame my partner for our problems. Neurobiological explanation: The research by Benjamin Karney of the UCLA found that the greater the stress, the more reactive we'll be to the normal ups and downs at home. The more stressed we are, the more we and our partner will argue, criticize, blame, and withhold affection from each other. We're much more likely to judge the relationship as negative and blame our loved one for a problem, not realizing the way stress is distorting how we see the relationship. In addition, stress hormones lower sex drive.

I've become less social. I find myself wishing that people, including friends and family, would stop bothering me. Neurobiological explanation: People tend to isolate when they are chronically stressed. In fact, social isolation plays a major role in people's inability to deal with stress. Type-A personalities experience extreme stress and tend to shun support.

I eat more to cope with my emotional state, or I have lost my appetite. Neurobiological explanation: Stress makes two-thirds of people hyperphagic (eat more) and the rest hypophagic (eat less). Glucocorticoid is the stress hormone that stimulates appetite, and it can take hours for glucocorticoids to be cleared from the bloodstream.[1] In the interim, we're likely to put away a bag of potato chips, a soft drink, and a chocolate cookie.

My use of alcohol, tobacco, or other substances has increased, in part to relieve stress. Neurobiological explanation: Stress hormones trigger substance abuse [2], and cause a greater chance of relapse in recovering alcoholics.

☐ I experience fatigue most days and at times become exhausted. Neurobiological explanation: During a stressful day, the brain's stress response system is turned on almost nonstop. Stress hormones are dumped into the blood system, which in turn accelerates heart rate and respiration and activates the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes fight, flight, or freeze. The system expends a lot of energy and by the end of the day, we're exhausted. [3]

I'm having difficulty getting to sleep because I can't quiet down, or I'm sleeping more than usual and don't want to get out of bed. Neurobiological explanation: Studies show that poor sleepers tend to have higher levels of stress hormones in their bloodstream. If the day has been particularly stressful, the likelihood is we'll have little sleep at night. Stress hormones not only decrease the total amount of sleep we get but can compromise the quality of whatever sleep we end up getting. [4]

I feel less confident about my ability to handle my personal problems. Neurobiological explanation: The buildup of stress hormones makes us depressed, which lowers self-esteem, and we lose the brain chemistry that enables us to stay on top of a situation.

Now, casually read back to yourself the items you copied and pasted into the Word document, as if you were describing your stress level to a trusted friend. Then determine for yourself how it sounds to you. Would you say it was high, medium, or low? This should give you a good idea of how big a problem stress is in your life.

If you assess your stress level as high or medium, get this book >>> The End of Stress -- Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain. It's based on breakthroughs in neuroscience over the last 20 years that can mitigate and even resolve the signs of stress you just identified.

[1] Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, 72.
[2] Ibid, 347
[3] Ibid, 62
[4] Ibid, 236